In his desk drawer at The Sportsground in Galway, where Connacht will welcome Leicester Tigers tomorrow, Pete Wilkins keeps a copy of a letter sent to him by the English Rugby Football Union.
The original arrived around 16 years ago in reply to his request for advice on how to begin a coaching career. Wilkins insists that the tone was “very polite”. Still, the message must have been disheartening.
“Essentially, it said professional opportunities were very limited and often go to former professional players,” explains Wilkins. “It was: ‘Good luck, but there’s not much you can do other than keep doing your badges’.
“It’s almost too much of a cliché but I glance at it sometimes,” he adds, laughing. “I get it. They must have letters from people every week, saying they want to be a coach. There’s no axe to grind, but it’s a nice little reference point and I keep it with me. Thankfully for me, it fuels the fire a bit more.”
The fire had been lit – or reignited – a few months previously, and completely by chance. Connacht’s senior coach has travelled an extraordinary path to his current position, passing through a series of sliding doors.
At 18, having represented Sussex age-grade teams, Wilkins flew out for a season with Eastern Suburbs in Sydney before returning to start a geography degree at Durham University. It was there, however, that he “drifted away from rugby”.
Wilkins graduated, moved to London and endeavoured to “work out what my place in life was going to be”.
By 2005, his family had relocated to the South West of France and, while visiting them that October, Wilkins attended a Heineken Cup match between Toulouse and Scarlets at Stade Ernest-Wallon.
The hosts won 50-28, inspiring an onlooker that had spent the previous five years “almost entirely away from rugby”.
Back in England, Wilkins completed his level-one RFU coaching award. It was at this stage that he sent a letter to Twickenham. Despite the response, he persisted. Australia was, he thought, “a country that always championed the craft of coaching”. The next step made sense, then: “Bugger this, I’ll go to the other side of the world.”
Wilkins landed a place in Queensland Rugby Union’s community department in 2007. Sent up to Townsville, his “patch” stretched a five-hour drive north to Cairns and a five-hour drive south to Mackay.
Wilkins believes that the hardest step for prospective coaches is piercing “the pro-team bubble”. In that respect, his own chance cropped up in 2011. During the season that the Queensland Reds ended up as Super Rugby champions, they needed a team analyst for a two-week trip to South Africa that took in games against the Lions and the Stormers.
Ewen McKenzie enlisted Wilkins, who impressed and became head of analysis in 2012. That morphed into various coaching gigs, starting with the responsibility of lineout throwing.
Eventually, he moved across to the role of defence coach. In 2015, a similar position became available at Edinburgh and Alan Solomons recruited him. Wilkins and his wife, Sarah, embraced another adventure with young boys Harry and Oscar in tow.
Over two seasons in Scotland, Wilkins witnessed Connacht’s ascension to the Pro 12 title under Pat Lam with “a really attractive, possession-focused style of rugby”.
“Connacht has this whole rich history of survival against the odds and proving other people wrong. Without being too melodramatic about it, that resonated with me because, you know, my own journey had been a bit different. It had been about proving people wrong and finding different ways to succeed.”
Wilkins joined Connacht as defence coach in 2017. He was promoted to senior coach for the current campaign.
Connacht’s meeting with Leicester is a fascinating culture clash. A month ago, it took the destructive scrummaging of Tigers’ replacement front-rowers – James Whitcombe, Julián Montoya and Dan Cole – to ward off an upset at Welford Road. Connacht thoroughly deserved the losing bonus point sealed by Jack Carty’s smart drop goal.
Wilkins is excited. He says it will be a “cool challenge” for his team to assert themselves as Leicester attempt to seize control with kick-pressure, breakdown disruption and set-piece power. But Tigers, he points out, are “not as predictable as maybe they are accused of being”.
In the world of Wilkins, that is a compliment.
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