As a South African living in the United States, how did it all start?
I grew up playing rugby and had some excellent experiences as a result. My wife is American so I soon found myself in Ohio where my starting point was Personal Training. At the time I was a bit fed-up with the set-up of rugby in the area so decided to get involved with coaching, originally at a collegiate level. I then decided to establish 1823 as a club and it has grown rapidly. It's a huge year coming up for us and we have clear goals of success at all levels - hopefully, through our training and methodology, we can achieve that this year on all fronts.. We're a young group, the average age is 22 and we have 57 players competing for just 12 spots so we are in a good position.
I was introduced to James Walker who has done a fantastic job with Belmont Shore RFC winning the National Championship three times. He had Tiger Rugby which, at the time, was a touring side 7s side. They were having good success and put an emphasis on philanthropic endeavours in countries they toured. Things developed from there to where we now have the Tiger Rugby Academy - we want to equip these young American players to have a life outside of their rugby whilst pushing their performance to the highest standard they can achieve. Our number 1 priority is always the player - they are housed, they earn whilst with us, they train their rugby. We've got some truly outstanding prospects.
Is 7s the best gateway to the American audience as well as the players themselves? It's, arguably, more exciting, higher scoring as well as slightly easier to pick up in some ways for talented athletes..
I think 7s is certainly better for TV. It's a fast game, it suits the sporting culture for tailgating and making the most of the day. However, it has a limit - American fans love to be able to follow a team and watch them live. With 7s their opportunity to do that is so limited - once a year there is a home tournament, otherwise they are off around the globe on the 7s Series. As a result I think 15-a-side rugby remains the future.
How far can it go? Will it 'make it' as a big sport?
Absolutely. The challenges are there in terms of geography and the sheer size of the country - for fixtures or tournaments, players have to take Friday and Monday off work, as well as being able to get to the destination. However, the growth is most certainly there. Ohio alone now has 50 teams and other states are seeing similar uptake. There are good competitions out there that are based on regional conferences - I think that is the way forward.
Have you noticed any difference working with American athletes compared to other nationalities?
American athletes are really hard workers. The lack of recreational sport means that those who are lucky enough to play at a High School and Collegiate level are already at a high standard within their sport. They are therefore bred in a professional environment, carry a professional attitude and have very high expectations. At times that can be a source of frustration for them, if they aren't progressing at the rate they would like, but they are, on the whole, very driven athletes.
How has it effected your coaching language when coaching former American Football or Basketball players - do you have to frame your coaching with references they understand? Or do they just have to learn Rugby for what it is?
Certainly we use references that they can understand. Basketball terminology often works well as it has some more similarities with Rugby than Football does. Basketball players are used to working both attack and defence as well as how to create, and exploit, space. In contrast, Football is all about yards not space. Often those coming from a Football background have been limited to just paying on one side of the ball. As a result defensive players can be too reactive, whereas offensive players are too early to everything!
I often come across the phrase 'Coaching Philosophy' here, how would you describe the basis of your coaching?
An absolute focus on fundamentals. The basic, individual skills of rugby are so important and that is why most countries are so far behind New Zealand. I see it simply - players need to concentrate on the elements that they can control. Fundamental skills, mindset etc they are all well within the control of a player if they want to improve. At the Academy I often encourage these guys to watch as much Rugby as they possible can - remember, they don't have the culture of having grown up playing and watching rugby. It's so important for them to watch and learn as much as possible to try and increase their Rugby IQ.
Beyond that, I take a holistic approach and focus on the player. What is best for them? How can they be the best version of themselves? So many players watch rugby and decide they want to be Sonny Bill Williams or equivalent, but they can't - they haven't grown up in the same culture, they don't have the same players around them, it is an unrealistic aspiration. However, they can work on their own skills, be the best they can be and forge their own path. They need to look inward first and foremost.
Do you have any advice for me, and other young coaches, that you think is worth passing on?
Always take small steps to credibility. Plenty of people talk a good game, but believe in what you are doing and over-exceed expectations. Be different and create your own path with focus and determination. A phrase that comes to mind is "The surest investment is always in yourself".