Stepping into coaching role was daunting, but I couldn’t refuse a chance to get back into the game
It’s funny how things work out sometimes. I played my last Test match, for the Baa-Baas in Cardiff, and exactly two years later I’m back in the same city, coaching Fiji’s forwards on something of a three-week magical mystery tour. Magical because it’s great to be getting a taste of international rugby again, and a mystery because I had no idea what to expect.
We started with a win over Spain in Madrid last week, today we play Wales in Cardiff, and then it’s back to Madrid for our final outing, against Georgia. A bit like Ireland’s November series, we have the game we’re expected to win, the one we’d love to win and the one we have to win — in that order.
I have this opportunity because of Covid. Fiji’s full squad of players and management could not take part in this series because of the difficulties of quarantining when they return to the southern hemisphere. So the squad was chosen from players based in this part of the world.
And Gareth Baber, who coached Fiji to gold in the Sevens at the Tokyo Olympics, is standing in as head coach for Vern Cotter.
Joe Schmidt asked me if I’d be interested in helping out, having recommended me to his old friend Vern. Initially we expected Vern would be here so I thought I would be just taking the scrum, and even that seemed daunting.
Being honest, when Joe first said it to me I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. In the end, it just seemed like too good of an opportunity to let pass, especially to get to work alongside Vern.
Things were changing so fast, as they have been with Covid, and eventually it became apparent that Vern couldn’t get out of New Zealand so I’d have to take the scrum and the lineout. That was definitely a big challenge for me. But if you’re going to get in, you might as well jump in at the deep end.
I won’t lie, I was worried. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d never actually built a training session and delivered it to a team. And since I stopped playing I haven’t been in that kind of coaching environment, other than a little bit of stuff with the Ulster Academy.
We had some staff meetings over Zoom before we got together, and at one, Vern said he wasn’t so worried about the backs because they’d continue to do what they do to develop. He said he was more worried about the setpiece, and then said: “Rory you’ve got the hardest job.”
I could have done without that at the time, it was hard enough dealing with the fact that I was by far the least experienced coach on the team.
Gareth also brought Richie Gray and Duncan Hodge on board. They are all experienced coaches, which is great for me. I knew Hodgy from playing against him, and I’d actually met Richie a few times. In fact, he came to my house once, about 10 years ago. He designs a lot of his own kit, pads and stuff, and I had that throwing machine that I used for years and I was looking at developing it a bit. So I rang Richie and he came over to see it.
My inexperience meant I naively thought I’d be starting from scratch almost, teaching the basics. But of course, this is Fiji. They understand rugby, all aspects of rugby, really well. Their grounding is all about keeping the ball alive, but part of that is because the pitches back home are so hard they don’t want to go to ground, they don’t want rucks.
Their technical nous has really impressed me. And they organise themselves really well. At one of the first sessions we did in Spain, before we’d named a team, we asked them to split into two packs for some lineouts and Leone Nakarawa said something in Fijian and that was it, packs organised. With Ireland that would have been a nightmare: lads telling other lads they’d picked themselves for the weekend and so on, everyone wouldn’t have been sure where to go or what to do. But they just did it. Once the leader says it, they do it.
Camp is very different to what I was used to with Ireland. We were very drilled. We’d walk everything through, maybe a couple of times a day until we had it off. I’m finding here that approach doesn’t work; you need to get your point across, show visuals and they correct themselves quickly. We would have meetings that would go on, maybe 30 minutes or more, whereas here you’ve got to be a lot more deliberate. You need to keep it short, and to the point.
Their focus is, let’s get the setpiece out of the way so we can go and play. That’s how they think. In this part of the world, and especially here I guess, we see it as a weapon that we can use to win games. They see it as a means to restart a game.
So I’m trying to move them a little along the road to the setpiece dominance that I was brought up in, without taking away their strong points.
You are dealing with a lot of limitations. On the Monday of the Spain game we didn’t do much because some players had played for their clubs in France. We also lost some players who opted to stay with their club.
In Ireland, the squad is named and the players show up unless they get injured. Fiji don’t have that luxury. As coaches, we are just hoping everyone will turn up. You have all these plans for the week and then you have to adjust because the squad changes at the last minute.
It’s a very difficult situation for some of these players, even though this is a recognised Test window. I presume the French clubs are putting a little pressure on them so the players are just pawns in a bigger game. They are very loyal to their employers. The clubs pay the bills, and they are sending money home to help support their families.
It’s a very different November experience than what I had been used to, and not just because I’m a coach now. We had two games in Spain, either side of today’s one, so that’s a big change. Obviously, I’m used to big days in Cardiff, and we’re actually using the same hotel this week that we would use with Ireland so I’ve been feeling more at home. Also, I’m a lot more familiar with Wales than Spain or Georgia so I’ve been bringing in some new lineouts and bits and pieces.
We trained on Friday and it was a bog. We’re two days before a big international and I’m not kidding, we were sinking in it. If we had turned up here with Ireland, Joe would have just said no, we’re not training here, and we would have found another pitch to use. Not one player complained though, which tells you a lot. They just got on with it.
Even down to the kit we get — there’s such a difference. I wasn’t really prepared for that, to be honest, because with Ireland there is full kit for the weeks in camp. When we were in Spain I had to get some extra gear brought over from home. Rob Kearney’s stag was in Madrid and one of my mates going on the stag brought it out to me.
Vern has emphasised that this is a journey of development to the World Cup in 2023. That’s why it’s so important for Fiji that they get exposed to the top teams, like Wales today.
It’s a journey for me too. Rugby has been a huge part of my life for a long time — and not just the 15 and a half years I had with Ulster and Ireland.
I would have been an Ulster and Ireland fan even if I hadn’t been fortunate to have the career I had. Playing was my life, and when that stops you don’t just fall out of love with the game. If I wasn’t in Cardiff today, I’d love to have been at the All Blacks game with my kids. What a win.
It’s nice to have your weekends back, and be with your family. Rugby is something I love, but I’m not just sure if I’m ready to go back to being seven days a week full on in the game.
I have family and work to consider now too, and I’m lucky that Ardonagh are really good at giving me time away for something like this.
When Kieran Campbell was at the Ulster Academy, he let me dip my toe in the water there. I enjoyed that and there was no pressure.
But when he left, there wasn’t much reaching out in terms of continuing to help out a little. I also found myself getting busier away from rugby — but every now and again you get a chance to get back closer to the game and it’s hard to say no.