The Black Ferns director of rugby talks to one of the most highly regarded female coaches in the game

Wayne Smith interviewed by Giselle Mather

Wayne Smith is one of rugby’s greatest minds, so who better to pick his brain than Giselle Mather, another progressive coach. Rugby World brought them together before the Rugby World Cup kicked off in New Zealand and a fascinating conversation ensued.

As the interview draws to a close, we discover that Smith was helping out Black Ferns coach Darryl Suasua in the late Nineties when Giselle Mather was still playing for England. Let’s just say Smith has better memories of a particular tour to New Zealand in 1996 than Mather, who was part of an England side that lost 67-0.

Over the previous hour and a half, the two coaches – both World Cup winners, Smith as a coach in 2011 and 2015 and Mather as a player in 1994 – have discussed team culture, the differences between coaching men and women, and the laws they would change…

Wayne Smith interviewed by Giselle Mather

Giselle Mather: I’m really interested to know why you took on such an awesome six-month challenge to lead the Black Ferns in a home World Cup.

Wayne Smith: I was having a cup of coffee with Mark Robinson, the CEO of NZ Rugby. He’s a mate of mine and he played for me when I was coaching the All Blacks. I happened to say if the Black Ferns coaches would like a bit of a hand I’m happy to do it. I’m not quite sure how that turned into being director of rugby!

This was 14 January, then in mid-March NZ Rugby said the coaches were keen. I was quite excited and went to a camp in Christchurch… John Haggart resigned the day before I arrived and Glenn Moore wasn’t in any space to coach given the accusations in the high-performance review that had just been released.

I’d not coached for ages, I’m retired, so by the end of the week I was exhausted and had lost my voice. Glenn resigned the following week and I was told I’d be director of rugby. I said, “No, I don’t want to be director of rugby. If you want to put director in my name call me director of coaching and I’ll just help the coaches.” The next day in the newspaper it came out as director of rugby!

I was caught in a landslide and it was difficult to avoid, but I’ve ended up on a goldmine. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. We’ve got lawyers, teachers, a civil engineering student… All these smart young women who have had to really fight to get where they are. It’s just wonderful being involved with them.

GM: What are the quick and easy wins? And at the other end of the scale, what is the biggest performance challenge?

WS: One of the biggest challenges was looking at the game we needed to play, then trying to get change throughout the country. If we’re going to make New Zealand proud at this tournament, we need everyone working on the same stuff. The first thing was getting rid of some structure. It sounds a bit weird because the game is so structured these days, in attack and defence, but really 60% of the game is unstructured.

Wayne Smith interviewed by Giselle Mather

Black Ferns captain Ruahei Denant speaks to coach Wayne Smith (Getty Images)

That’s been the big change, sharing what we’re doing around the hubs and the Farah Palmer Cup teams has been important, and developing a set of skills that allow us to play the sort of game we need to play. Rather than what a lot of them had been brought up to do, which was just drill, drill, drill and get structure, I wanted to introduce game-based learning and welcome mistakes.

You’ll know more than me Giselle, but women don’t like mistakes whereas I love mistakes because if you’re not making them it means you’re not trying hard enough or it’s not difficult enough or there’s not enough new information.

GM: And an easy win?

WS: Their collective intelligence – they’re really quick to pick things up – and their understanding of logic. I think they’ve been over-coached whereas we’re sort of under-coaching a wee bit, allowing them to play.

You’ve got to have a bit of fun as well, so allowing them to play and express themselves – and at the same time getting their fitness levels up. We were miles behind England and France in a lot of areas on the end-of-year tour. The big area was strength and conditioning, so improving that has been key.

GM: You’re huge on culture and identity. How do you build that culture in six months before a home World Cup? 

WS: That’s a really good question. To me, identity, that concept of legacy, handing the jersey on in a better spot than when you got it, who you are and who you’re representing, where you’ve come from… All those things are way more important than the actual coaching. Don’t get me wrong, coaching is an important art and science, but I think it plays second fiddle to that personal meaning you need in the team. It’s been a big piece of work for us.

I’ve been really fortunate to have Allan Bunting come in from sevens, so he’s leading that area for me now. I found it difficult at the start because I was having a lot of meetings around that with the leadership group and putting a lot of work into it. Having Allan come in and take over and put his own slant on it has been awesome.

I’ve also got Wes Clarke, our defence coach who’s experienced in that area. And Whitney Hansen. She’s gone from being a one-day-a-week intern to forwards coach in a week. So we’re all on the same page there. I can’t give you inside knowledge of what we’re doing but it’s pretty special and meaningful and the girls take it really seriously.

I always remember after we won the World Cup in 2015, having a beer with Jerome Kaino and talking about legacy, about handing the jersey on. He’d been saying he’d be handing it on sooner or later. To me, him and Ian Kirkpatrick are the greatest sixes in history, and I said that to him. He said, ‘Nah, I haven’t even made the jersey better Smithy.’ He got it off Jerry Collins so in his mind he’d not made it better and that was driving him constantly to be better and better. That’s a powerful driver.

GM: I get asked this all the time, but what do you perceive as the main differences between coaching men and women?

WS: I obviously played in the amateur era but I also coached in the amateur era. I started as a player-coach in Italy and so I grew up differently to current coaches today, some of whom have just been professional players and gone straight into coaching. So for me, the difference is that. I’m coaching women who had to take the path that we took back in the Eighties, where you had to have a real passion to play. You had to find a club to play for, you didn’t get asked to play for a club.

When I moved down to Canterbury, I was told to go to the Christchurch club. There were 97 triallists, so I didn’t even get my boots out of the car. I went to a club on the fringes of the country, Belfast, because they didn’t have any backs.

That’s not the case today. But these women have had to start their teams at school, sometimes they’ve had to find coaches or only played ten-a-side because there’s not enough girls to play and then they’ve had to find a club. So you’ve got women who really know what they want out of the game because they’ve had to fight so hard for it.

For the men today, generally they’re identified at school, they play academy rugby, then come into senior provincial teams and Super Rugby. So it’s a totally different trajectory. And it would be easy to just expect that to happen whereas the women don’t expect anything.

GM: I also think after a game the girls will tell you three things they’ve done badly and the boys say, ‘I was brilliant at that, did you see that?’. I’m being generalistic but it’s about 80%.

WS: Have you been spying on our team?! One of the centres has been playing brilliantly in the Farah Palmer Cup and she dropped a kick-off and that’s the only thing she could think about. She’s a brilliant young player, but there’s a lot of anxiety. You can see why. The path they’ve trod hasn’t been easy.

GM: Because of where France and England are, you’ve said you need to do something a bit different. Can you share anything around that?

WS: Looking at the end-of-year tour, playing a traditional game against teams like England and France, who are much better at that than we are, means we had to change. So we’ve got to create a lot more chaos, to not go into our shells, to use what we’re doing in training and put it all out on the playing field.

If we just played a traditional game, we’d get beaten by probably 30, 40, 50 points by England, so we’ve got to make changes. And we’ve got to pick players who are able to play that game.

GM: If you could change one law, what would you do?

WS: I’d change a lot of them! The first one would be take out scrum resets.

I reckon you should have one chance. I’ve coached with Mike Cron for decades and when we started in the early 2000s, he wouldn’t let any scrums go down in training. Every time a scrum went down, they had to do a ten-metre army crawl. Scrums stopped going down!

That’s the most frustrating part of the game for me. Then teams use it to their advantage to scrum for a penalty, then they kick to touch, drive, get a penalty, kick to the corner and drive for a try.

GM: You haven’t seen the ball move!

WS: It’s so frustrating. I think they could do two things. Either make you play off a free-kick, so you can’t kick for goal, so you’d see some innovation come in around tap kicks, which would be great. Or, because the game’s about grouping and spreading, if you want to group them and have a scrum, then it’s a golden oldie where you’ve got to win the ball, a wee bit like rugby league.

I think the height of the tackle is heading here, but tackling under the ball and as low as possible is key. What that would do in my mind is allow you to keep the ball alive more often. You’re tackling low, so it would make you work harder on support play and create less rucks, which are danger areas. It would reduce the number of rucks and increase spectator enjoyment, which doesn’t seem to be a factor at the moment.

GM: With the jackal, I don’t think it should be a penalty as it slows the whole game down. Also, when it’s not straight at the lineout, why do we go to a scrum? Free-kick, get on with it.

WS: Exactly. Imagine the game if we implemented those things, it would absolutely take off. But we don’t want to get like sevens, where every ruck is a penalty and there’s virtually no advantage, everything is a tap kick.

Wouldn’t it make a huge difference? Northampton under Chris Boyd ran everything. I’m good mates with Chris and Tabai Matson, who is like our third son and played for me at Crusaders.

I watched Northampton-Harlequins at Twickenham with 75,000 there. They defy the laws.

GM: I felt sorry for Chris Boyd. Northampton made a lot of mistakes against Leicester in the semi-final. Your skill-set has to be en pointe and it wasn’t. 

WS: You’ve got to have that game-based learning all the time, introducing new ideas, changing the shape of the field, making it as difficult as possible for them, so they don’t get used to it and can perform under pressure.

There’s been this big movement with the All Blacks of going from red to blue, so going from that cluttered state where you’re looking at the scoreboard or worrying about mistakes or thinking of the future or the past. You’re trying to get into that ice-cold state. Game-based learning allows you to introduce different pressures. I walk around putting players under pressure; they don’t like it but they have to handle it because they’ve got to handle it on Saturday.

GM: What sort of things do you do?

WS: I might say to the group, on a goal-line, you’re not allowed to kick it and you need to score within three phases. How are you going to do it?

I’m always into them. It caused quite a few problems when I was younger, when I didn’t know what I was doing and hadn’t explained it very well. The girls know what I’m doing. They get put under pressure, but they understand what I’m doing and understand the value.

GM: How do you feed back to athletes? I don’t like talking to players directly after a game because I need to check what I actually think is correct.

WS: I’m 100% like that. I only ever thank them for effort because no player goes out there not to give effort. As a coach, I’ve never been one just to back my own intuition. ‘Am I really right there?’ I’ve always needed data. Even in the early days before computerisation, we’d go through the game by hand and notate.

I’m really reliant on that and I’m the same as you Giselle, I need to have a look. You can go, ‘Gee, that girl was no good’ and you look the next day and see her work-rate was awesome. I don’t do that until probably the evening of the following day, when we meet with small groups to look at a few clips.

I’m a real believer in strengths analysis, so I’d work 80% on what players are doing well, what their strengths are. Virtually all their skills training and individual preparation plans are based on what they’re good at. My view is if you’re good at it and get better at it, you become a champion. Then just work on one or two things that are important to your position that you’re not so good at.

GM: I find scanning one of the hardest things to coach because you don’t know what the player is seeing. Is there a way to accelerate that process?

WS: I learnt really early in my All Blacks coaching career a couple of important things and they came from young Daniel Carter. When I started with him in 2004, I remember him saying, “If I try to see everything I see nothing”. It’s something that’s always stuck with me, so don’t get these players to look for too much, be really specific in what you’re looking for.

He also said he didn’t want problems. He didn’t want to know there was space out there, he wanted to know what the call was because he wanted to be able to execute it really fast. Those are two things I’ve based a lot of my coaching on.

GM: So he wanted those outside him to call it rather than shout ‘space’.

WS: Then he could execute it really well. To me, he’s probably the greatest player I’ve ever seen in the world, over my 65 years. He was just  phenomenal.

Your role as a coach is to make them execute as fast and accurately as they can, so you have to try to reduce the information. Getting them to sense. If you sense something is happening, back your intuition and make the call.

GM: I ask a lot of coaches this. When the game is happening live, what are you looking for in order to assist your team the most?

WS: I’m looking for those one or two things that you think could make a real difference at half-time. Have we done them a couple of times already? If we have, I’ll clip those and show them. I try to use positive reinforcement at half-time to make changes that we might have tried a couple of times and it’s worked, but we’ve not continued to do it. Generally that’s what I’m scouring the computer for,

I found in the Pac Four, we didn’t do a lot of our pre-planning in terms of specifics against teams because we were working on the way we wanted to play, so we decided we’d just do what we’d been doing at training without taking into account too much the other team. I think you can do too much, I’ve been in teams who have had 15 pages of scouting; I don’t want anything like that. Generally, I’m looking for something that will make a difference.

When we played Australia in the first game, it was pouring with rain. In fact, all three games it rained. The one against Australia, the ground cut up because there had been a game before us, it was muddy, but we didn’t make any changes, I just wanted to try and play the way we’d been training. But it wasn’t really working. The defence was fast and they only had one player in the backfield.

So it was obvious what to do at half-time, getting some kicks hitting the deck and forcing them to put players back, and allowing us to play the way we want to play. I have a big rugby mat and might put a little picture on that with avatars, trying to get the girls to say what they’d do if they saw that on the field, trying to get as much out of them as I can. Maybe having one or two things that I think can make a difference. But it’s only one man’s opinion, I could be wrong.

GM: As coaches I think you can sometimes get really distracted by so much happening. I’m interested in how coaches keep focused in all the chaos on what they’re looking for.

WS: There’s only been a couple of games that I’ve been so consumed by what’s happening and the pressure that I’ve not operated properly. One was the World Cup final in 2011, the last 20 minutes, and I was just praying that France had all the ball because I didn’t think they were going to score if they had the ball, I was worried about an intercept or charge-down kick if we had it.

But generally I’m fairly measured, I look at the game on the field, then about 20 seconds behind on the computer. We’re really clear about how to play the game now and it’s really uncomplicated. We have a simple system and basically we learn as we go through a game what’s going to happen.

That’s the way I played. I learnt some lessons early on as a club player in Canterbury off a winger who became a good mate of mine, Gary Hooper. Whenever we played his team I played poorly. If I kicked it, he was back there and if I didn’t kick it, he was always tackling me.

I was only a young player and I said to him, ‘I can’t understand why I can’t see what to do against you?’

He said, ‘That’s because I’m manipulating you.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I don’t let you kick to that space because I stand back there and when you look at me I know you’re not going to kick, you’ll pass and by the time the ball comes out I’m up flat and able to defend.’

That changed my mindset as a young player and I carried that in as a coach. The game is a lot simpler than you think. We’ve not got a lot of plays, we’re not very sophisticated in our structures, but we know how to play off broken-field running.

GM: I call selection a cultural hand grenade and you have to throw it in every time you play; it causes chaos. Once players have had time to work it through, everybody knuckles down and helps, but sitting down and talking to them is so important.

WS: 100%. The women take the selection piece really hard. We give them the night, we meet with all of them and have a chat about it. But from the next day on, their whole role is to help the person who got the jersey. That’s what I really love about them.

When we picked the team for the O’Reilly series, we needed to ring them first. I’ve got a really strong coaching group of a like mindset, so I think we rang about 50 women to tell them if they’re in or not in. The ones that weren’t in who had been in, we travelled around to meet them in their hubs.

Wayne Smith with Black Fern co-captains Ruahei Demant and Kennedy Simon (Getty Images)

I didn’t get to do that because I’d had a hernia operation – the girls are too hard on me and I’d been training too hard! – but the rest of the coaches went round the hubs to reconfirm why they’re not in and what the future looks like.

Then the following week I went on Zoom just to let them vent. I didn’t have any clips or anything, I just wanted to hear their view and it gave them a chance to tell me what they thought. They’re great but they also need an opportunity to let it out. It’s a process, it’s not just one meeting, a series of meetings.

GM: That breeds real value. Even though they’re not selected, they feel part of the plans and they feel listened to. That accelerates the culture of the group. I’m not saying it’s not the same with men, but I think the reason they get so intense and upset about it is because it matters. It’s not about money or some of the other things it’s about for the men because of their full contracts. For the women, it’s because it matters. It’s a big deal.

WS: And the families, it matters hugely to them. They’re massively supportive, they turn up for jersey presentations and cappings. It’s just a really cool environment to be in because it does matter so much.

GM: What are your key fundamentals to a great performance?

WS: Clearly the build-up is a great indicator I think of how the team is going to go, so having a routine that is successful, making sure there’s a bit of discomfort. It’s all nice to be a happy team and get on well together, but there’s got to be some edge and lack of comfort is a real driver of performance, so trying to create that.

Real clarity is hugely important. I’ve always been a believer, ever since I was a player, that people will rise to a challenge if they see a challenge, but they won’t necessarily rise to our challenges.

So it’s empowering the players to be involved, establishing the game plan and presenting to the team. You’ve got to help them with that, to teach players different presentation techniques. Handing the game over to them in the last few days of the week I think is pretty critical because they’ve got to play it. I haven’t had a team talk since maybe 2008.

GM: Seriously? You don’t speak to the team before a match?

WS: We don’t have team talks. In 2005, we won a Grand Slam that year in Europe, Tana Umaga was captain. This is a great example of player involvement. In a coaches’ meeting, there was a knock on the door and Tana walked in. He said to us as a group and said to Graham Henry, ‘Ted, who are the team talks for? For you guys or the players?’

Wayne Smith interviewed by Giselle Mather

Giselle Mather coaching the Barbarians in 2017 (Getty Images)

So we said, ‘Do you not think they’re the right thing to do?’ He said to drop the team talks. It did take a couple of years to buy into that, we reduced them. Ted even threw a sneaky one in on a Friday night and Richie McCaw coming and saying, ‘Not on Friday night either!’.

It’s a matter of trust. You’ve got to get out of that mindset of ‘I’m going to inspire them before the game’.

GM: Do you do that more throughout the week?

WS: Exactly, that’s the time. If you’re handing the game over to the players, essentially they’re the ones that have to play the game, to win the game or lose the game, so it’s they’re responsibility.

I don’t think the All Blacks or many teams in New Zealand would have team talks any more.

GM: I won’t be in the changing room any more, but I do a team talk when we all get there. I’m going to think about that now. 

WS: I loved a good team talk from Grizz Wyllie when I was playing because I liked to be on edge. I just think the way the game has developed out here in New Zealand, there’s a lot more player empowerment and a movement to give them more accountability in that area.

GM: In the female coaching fraternity at the moment this is a big point of discussion: how do you look after your own personal wellbeing. We all have a tendency to be workaholics. So how do you look after yourself to produce the best version of you for players? And has that changed?

WS: I’m not as intense as I was. Also, the fact that I was retired about six months ago, I’m nowhere near as intense as I was. That helps. The way I’ve grown up coaching with more game-based activities rather than drills allows a lot of fun and adventure. I enjoy bringing in new rules and ideas, and I think that keeps me going.

When I’m with a team, my key moments of joy are on the field doing that stuff. I wouldn’t have coached as a DoR who just oversees things, it’s just not me. I want to be out there on the field, I think that’s why I’ve had this hernia. I run everywhere. Graham Henry is the same. He’ll be behind defence and I’ll be behind the attack, and we’ll be pushing our parts of the game, trying to be better than the other coach.

GM: Your GPS data will be higher than players!

WS: That’s just the way I am. I love that. I look to get to the gym some mornings myself with a couple of staff, I go for a walk early in the morning. Little simple things. I try to eat really well, making sure I’m following similar nutrition guidelines to the players. Having my wife come into the last couple of days was always good with the All Blacks, having family support.

I keep a diary. From an early age, I kept a diary of three things – family, myself and rugby. In the early days I got carried away just with rugby stuff. I promised myself I’d work harder than any other coach, so I’d find out what a coach was doing or how long he was working and I’d put half an hour on that. I was driving myself down the wrong road, then I started a diary when I put in things for myself and once I had them in I had to them. I’d do the same for my family.

I became famous at the NZ Rugby Union for my diary. ‘Smithy’s walking the dog with Trish, my wife, at 1 o’clock’ because I’d put it in the diary. That’s been really important, getting to the end of the week, looking back, I’ve had a good week of rugby but I’ve also given to my family and myself. It’s a Stephen Covey initiative actually, The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, and it’s something I’ve followed for quite a while now.

This article first appeared in Rugby World magazine’s November 2022 edition.

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