The move from playing squad to back-room team is a path well trodden. But there are different routes to take, as we find out
Transition from Rugby Player to Coach
You may have spent your career turning out for your village side on a soggy pitch with cold showers or on a pristine carpet of grass in front of 80,000 people, but at some point you have to retire.
For amateurs the change is less jarring, but for pros there is not only the time commitment but also the financial implication of finishing work in your mid-30s. Some find jobs in the real world, some go into broadcasting, but others stay in the game through coaching.
To find out what the transition is like, Rugby World spoke to five people who have gone from rugby player to coach…
Jackman had spells playing at Connacht, Leinster and Sale, as well as with the Irish national team, but by the time he retired in 2010 he had plenty of coaching experience.
“When I was 23 I was contracted at Connacht and got asked if I could help out Tullow, my home club,” he says. “Geographically it was a nightmare, it was taking me three hours to get to training, but in Ireland there is a Gaelic football mentality and you go back and help out your club.”
Jackman got Tullow promoted and then took his leave. When he signed for Leinster in 2005 he took up another coaching post, this time at Newbridge. He was there for two years, then took another break before joining Coolmine. “I had coached at three clubs before I retired. Then I went back to university to get my Masters and coached Clontarf.”
It was after his spell at Tullow that Jackman started to see coaching as a career option. “From then on I would watch my coaches. I would watch how they gave information, how they set up tactics for that week, how they built relationships. I think you can learn a lot from watching other people coach; specifically how they try to create a mindset within the squad.”
Jackman’s first professional role was as a skills and defence coach with Grenoble in the ProD2. “I think a lot of ex-players dive into being technically sound, which lends itself to a role like skills coach. As you get more coaching experience, you get a better balance of how much information to give.”
After five years, Jackman moved into the head coach role in the Alps. “I went from 100% coaching as an assistant to 90% non-coaching in the head coach role. We didn’t have a director of rugby so I was doing all the retention and recruiting, so you basically become the head of a department.”
Jackman’s playing days went hand in hand with his burgeoning coaching career. Now back in Ireland at Bective Rangers, for him it was an easy segue into coaching. But not all former pros are as prepared for the end of their careers.
Hamilton played his entire professional career with Leicester Tigers, winning the Heineken Cup in 2001 and 2002. “When I retired in 2003 I was asked if I wanted to help out with the half-back coaching and at that point I didn’t really know what I wanted to do post-playing career, so I did that for one year.
“I was living with someone who was in charge of technology at the English Institute of Sport. He suggested that if I wanted to take my coaching seriously I should get a camera and analyse what the guys were doing.”
The Tigers’ coaching staff saw what Hamilton was doing and asked if he wanted to do that for the first team. “It was right at the start of performance analysis in rugby and I didn’t really know what I was doing. But I gave it a go and I really enjoyed it. I just taught myself.”
Hamilton stayed with Leicester before moving to New Zealand and the Crusaders in 2008. He feels that his experience of playing at the highest level has aided his new career, saying: “It helps to have an understanding of the game. It has also helped to have coaches trust me because they know I understand the pressures that are part of the game. It makes it easier to build relationships with players and coaches.”
The path from player to coach is well trodden but player to analyst is less common. Most analysts in rugby now have four to six years of university education behind them but that was less of a problem for Hamilton.
“When I came in it was quite archaic. I’ve learnt as I’ve gone along but I would struggle if I started now because it is so technologically advanced. Current players will know some of the key stuff about analysis because they are so involved, but I think many players have the ambition of going down the coaching route rather than analysis.”
Although Hamilton’s current role is as an analyst with the All Blacks, he still steps into coaching when required. “I’ll help out Aaron Smith if he asks and give technical feedback to the guys. I don’t have an ambition to go into coaching, but I enjoy dabbling and working with the guys when they ask.”
Hamilton carved out his own role when he stopped playing and now works with the world’s standard-bearers. Players inadvertently landing on coaching is something of a theme.
Earnshaw was with Bath when they won the Heineken Cup in 1998 and went on to play at Bedford, Rotherham and Pertemps Bees (Birmingham & Solihull), the final two seasons as player-coach.
“I didn’t decide to become a coach until two years after I’d finished playing. I had all my coaching qualifications but I didn’t make a conscious decision until then,” he says. “I got an opportunity to work with England Sevens and I was out of my depth. You think you’re quite good but I was a million miles away. I had good people around me but I didn’t understand why we did certain things.”
His initial experience was filled with self-doubt but his coaching improved as he reflected on what his coaches had done. “You retrospectively think about coaches you have had and decide what you want to take and, most importantly, what you don’t want to copy.”
Earnshaw admits he was a journeyman professional and he believes that playing the game at a high level might not make you a better coach. But it does help in terms of getting employed.
“The decision-makers, the owners, aren’t necessarily looking for the best coaches, they are looking for people they can trust. They might be looking for someone who minimises risk.”
Being a former pro might get you a job, but with modern owners and bosses often getting involved in the day-to-day running of teams, it might not be a role you want. “There are a lot of coaches who aren’t allowed to be themselves, are spoken to badly, and spend a lot of their time thinking, ‘Will I be gone before they (the decision-maker) is?’”.
Earnshaw no longer works in a traditional coaching environment. He co-founded Magic Academy with former Newcastle and Yorkshire Carnegie coach John Fletcher to provide coach development for a number of sports at any level.
His distance from the pro game has led him to believe rugby is doing it wrong. “In sports where there isn’t much money they can make ‘risky’ decisions and bring in people who don’t fit the mould. In the really high-value sports, like the American sports, those coaches have learnt their craft and often they are ex-teachers, not ex-players.”
Earnshaw believes rugby is stuck in a rut, with coaches being employed because they fit the typical coaching profile. That is good news for ex-players but not necessarily for the sport. One area where clubs have shown invention is bringing in coaches from rugby league.
Today, hiring a league coach to sort out your defence is the de facto decision for many clubs. That wasn’t the case in 2001 when Kiss was asked by South Africa boss Harry Viljoen to come in as defence coach, with his previous experience just a brief stint with the London Broncos rugby league team.
“My first union coaching was in the middle of the Springboks as the first foreigner to coach at that level. I saw these big players and they were looking down at me thinking who is this scrawny little Aussie? That is where if you are yourself you can succeed but it was a little daunting, to say the least.
“It probably formed a part of my ability at that level because it was right at the deep end. There were eight-week training camps and there is no escape, you sink or swim. I think playing at the top level helped because they all respected that I had played in the State of Origin and I could tell little lies about how tough I was.”
Yet Kiss, now head coach of London Irish, doesn’t believe a high-level playing career is a requirement to being a coach. In fact, he thinks that coaches in other sports and even theatre pros could add something to a set-up.
“I don’t think you need to be a professional to be a good coach. Someone like Pep Guardiola would do a great job in rugby because there are transferable skills, like people skills, understanding the competitive nature of groups, how to manage conflict.
“All those things are fundamental skills from coaching which transfer. I’d actually like to get the person responsible for the staging of Hamilton to come in because I think they’d see things that we didn’t.”
League coaches are ubiquitous in the game but truly world-class pros are still under-represented in back-room teams, with most successful coaches known because of the work they have done off the field. However, recently there has been a trend for the best players in the world to move into coaching.
Peel played the first half of his career in Wales with the Scarlets and the second in England with Sale and Bristol. He is Wales’ second most-capped scrum-half (after Mike Phillips), a Grand Slam winner and a Lion. He was a superstar who has stayed in the game as a coach and is currently an assistant at Ulster.
He says: “Towards the latter part of my career I was actively looking to move into coaching. As a player I was always intrigued by looking at the opposition and working out how to break them down, so it was a natural progression.”
The technical and tactical details came quickly but the player management took longer. “The thing that takes time is the people management and your ability to get your point across. When you first go into coaching you may have a lot of knowledge as a player, but being able to share that knowledge is the key.”
There are now more world-class players going into coaching. Think Ronan O’Gara at the Crusaders and La Rochelle or Paul O’Connell with Ireland U20, then Stade Français. “I think the competition is big and certain types of players thrived on the competition,” says Peel.
“Also, the game only went professional in 1995. In Wales we didn’t really go professional until the early 2000s. If you think about the generation of players who have only been professional, the guys retiring now are the first of that generation.
“In the past, coaching would have been a side job, now it has the potential to be a full career. I was very lucky, I signed a professional contract straight from school, I’ve never worked outside of the game so that was all I knew. It was the natural progression.”
Any professional retiring now would be unusual if they had held a job outside of rugby. And we will continue to see younger coaches stepping straight out of playing and into major coaching positions. Owners and fans want big names in the staff and players trust coaches who have been in their shoes.
Other sports have dismissed that thinking. Baseball selects back-room talent as much from Ivy League economics classes as former playing ranks. Football has embraced the amateur. Juventus won the 2019-20 Italian league managed by Maurizio Sarri, who was a banker until he was 40.
It might not be too long until rugby looks away from the professional game. Until that point the rugby player to coach pathway will stay open, even if there are varying routes to take.
This article originally appeared in the October 2020 edition of Rugby World magazine.
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