Thursday 18 July 2019

'I would love to be in there by 30' - Meet the 18-year-old rugby coach who is targeting Ireland's top job

Joe Walsh during his time with Lansdown (right) and with All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen (inset).
Joe Walsh during his time with Lansdown (right) and with All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen (inset).
Will Slattery

Will Slattery

Joe Walsh has devised a fiendishly clever - and admirably devious - way to secure face-time with the world's greatest rugby coaches.

When you are an 18-year-old aspiring tactician and the goal is to join them sooner rather than later, you can't be expected to wait around until you bump into them aboard the coaching carousel in a decade's time.

Walsh needs his answers now, for he is a man in a hurry. So how does a teenager, yet to sit his Leaving Cert, secure coaching tête-à-têtes with Steve Hansen, Clive Woodward, Graham Henry and Joe Schmidt?

"I would spend two hours trying to find someone's email address online and it was actually easy," he explains.

"I devised a system where if you know the domain name for somewhere and figure out the pattern of their emails, you can figure it out.

"All those guys, I got a coffee with. Joe Schmidt gave me nearly two hours. I wrote him a letter and about four weeks later I got a phonecall, 'Hi Joe? This is Joe'. It was great, he gave me loads of advice.

"What set me apart when I got in touch with them was that I don't think they had heard of anything as bizarre. It's not that it was new, it's that it was bizarre and I think they thought it was interesting."

Bizarre and interesting is a perfect summation of Walsh's vision and it was nice of Schmidt to give him so much time - especially considering the youngster's headline goal on a very ambitious coaching to-do list is to one day replace him as Ireland boss, although he will settle for being in the set-up by the 2028 Six Nations.

His declarations, although sounding ridiculous, are based on more than bluster. The current Performance Director of Coolmine RFC U17s stopped playing rugby in St Michael's College at 14, and the following year dipped his baby toe into coaching.

Doing video analysis for the 3rd year social team wasn't the most glamorous start, but Walsh found that his interest in breaking down game footage and spotting patterns grew in tandem with the amount of coaches who wanted to use him.

The social team led to the seconds team, which led to the U13 first team. Around that time he met Ireland's video analyst Vinny Hammond for a chat, his inaugural cold-call conference - 'I set up with Linkedin when I was 15 – I don't know what I was at!' - before getting a chance to do video work with the Ulster women's team that summer after applying for a different role initially.

Then going into fourth year, he sent out a barrage of emails looking for a 'coaching apprenticeship' and got a response from Railway Union RFC, where he became a de facto coaching assistant for the women's senior team.

It all happened quite quickly.

"I stopped playing in second year because of a lack of interest in playing but my interest in the game grew, and I became more interested in how the game functioned and I watched more rugby," he says.

"Everything I have done has been self-done.

"One of the first questions I get is 'Did your dad coach? Did he play? Is he with that big club?', but I’ve tried to forge my own path. My dad played a bit of rugby, did about six months of coaching but never encouraged me to get into it.

"I got involved with lots of different passions but my dad spotted that this was something special and he put aside €2000 for the analysis software I needed and said 'that's my investment in your future'. I taught myself how to use the software."

Walsh has spent time shadowing some of the world's best coaching staffs in the three years since he set out on his path, having been with the Saracens set-up as well as a stint watching Grenoble under Bernard Jackman. Connections begot more connections and he also saw the inside of the London Irish, Ireland Sevens and Leinster sanctums, soaking up as much information as he could.

Walsh prides himself on his work-rate and knowing his side's numbers inside out - even arriving early for this interview to pore over statistics from a tough weekend defeat.

His first big leap into hands-on coaching came just as he was turning 17 as an assistant with the Lansdowne J2 and J3 teams, after impressing first team head coach Mike Ruddock.

A potential obstacle in his grand journey sprung up then, which is - how can someone so young command the respect of players who, if not old enough to be his father, were certainly running around with an oval ball during Walsh's embryonic stage.

He says his tactic for tackling this issue is a simple one: try to be able to answer any question a player could ask, don't talk down to them - a key tenet given that a teenager dictatorially bollocking a gnarled club rugby veteran is likely to lose a limb - and when you do make a mistake, admit it and try to rectify it.

"You have to accept that it is a part of the job," Walsh says of someone his age dealing with older players.

"A famous Australian coach once said: In a team of 15 players, five will love you, five will hate you and five are in the middle. Your job is to make sure that the five in the middle don't turn into five that hate you. I try to keep that in mind.

"When I came in to coach with Lansdowne for the first time, I was 16 and they were 18-30. It was the first time I had really hands-on coached a team. I was very concerned. I coached them during the first session. I didn't tell them my age but they soon found out.

"The guys don't care how old you are as long as you can make them better and you don't talk down to them.

"Joe Schmidt came into Leinster on a Monday and they were scared of him by Wednesday because he came in and imposed himself. I understand that I'm not able to do that. I haven't had the Top 14 coaching job, I haven't coached pro rugby. I have to earn the respect of these guys."

Walsh has a busy summer ahead: he has the looming Leaving Cert as well as a stage four IRFU coaching course to get through, and next season is adding an assistant coaching role with the King's Hospital Senior Cup team to his Coolmine duties.

He hopes to be studying Commerce in UCD by September too, by which stage the next phase of his master plan will begin.

It's ambitious, but by the end of his three-year degree he wants to have the coaching bona fides to take up a leading role with a good team.

"If I ended up being the head coach of a top AIL club at 21 it would be a massive achievement," he said.

"I would love to do that for my own development but what I'm hoping to do is looking to see if I can get into an academy, maybe do some coaching and analysis with the Leinster academy and keep in touch with Bernard Jackman and all these other coaches and spread my wings a little bit.

"If nothing comes up at 21, maybe do the H-DIP and in two years see if any doors are open that weren't open before."

The pathway of teaching to coaching has been walked by many of the field's top practitioners and Walsh plans on keeping that in his back pocket if his initial goal can't be reached by the end of his college years.

As for the eventual goal, Walsh is a headline writer's dream as he is happy to share his bold ambitions for the next ten years in eye-catching soundbites.

He may not be in Joe Schmidt's shoes one day, but it will definitely be interesting to watch him try and get there.

"If you are looking at it ambitiously, I would love to be in there [the Ireland set-up] at all by 30," he says.

"That would be a big goal. I said to a friend of mine 'Six Nations 2028, we will win that one!'. I have loads of ambitions but I would love to be involved by that age if I get a chance at all. I think as long as I get there, I will be happy.

"It is how I go about it, nobody can accuse me of slacking. It is probably outrageously sounding but that is how I frame it."

Online Editors

The Throw-In: Kerry back to their best, Connolly’s return and Cork’s baffling inconsistency

In association with Bord Gáis Energy

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport