The ambitious coach was preparing for the Olympics before problems mounted Stateside

For Warren Abrahams, this season was meant to be about preparing USA women’s sevens for the Olympic Games from his position as assistant coach. But the roughhouse combo of a union’s financial problems and a global pandemic ensured that his life would be whipped in a different direction. Today the defiantly upbeat coach relishes finding new opportunities.

“It’s been incredibly hard,” Abrahams tells Rugby World of losing his job. “You’ve been in a position only weeks ago where you were in a pretty cool spot, in terms of preparing your team for the pinnacle for anyone involved in sevens – the Olympics.

“I remember standing on the field and I was pretty pleased with how our work was progressing as a team. Then there are rumours around of the US potentially going bankrupt and then all of a sudden Covid-19 comes in and hits the whole world with a storm.

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“Before you know it, we’re in a position where we had to leave the training centre and then go into what was ultimately a small lockdown process. You weren’t too worried because we were still putting plans in place for the next tournaments but then not long after that – bam! – you are hit with the news. The company’s filing for bankruptcy and I remember sitting there in California and I (spoke) to my missus. Probably a day later, I left California to get back to England. You take as much stuff as you possibly can to come back.”

After a period of hanging on, he got the confirmation in June.

“It’s not great because how long was that? I think it was six months or so before that, I’d moved the family out there to take this challenge on (with USA women). So you’ve got all that stuff going through your head, all those emotions. Then not long after that the Olympics has been postponed and then you sort of start thinking: ‘Right, where could this potentially go – what do you do?’”

Warren Abrahams

Out on the field: Overseeing a session (Warren Abrahams)

Abrahams says all of this as matter of fact, often with a smile. In the days before and since there are clips and discussions about skill drills other coaches can use. Former charges take to social media to praise him. He says he has been open to having conversations with a variety of rugby people.

The South African is aware that many are enduring tough times, globally. And while the world yearns for more live sport, there are athletes and coaches who may not now be able to take part when it does return.

Asked how he would feel about switching fields completely, using his tapestry of experiences, Abrahams takes an overview of rugby. “It’s gonna be big for people to see live sports, but it is actually the people that have to deliver these live sports whose livelihoods are at stake.

“I’m reading all these things and I’m thinking: ‘People, I don’t even have a job!’ I’m not sure whether I’ve got a job and whether I’m actually going to be able to perform my skills within this. And if I can’t perform my skills, I’m hoping that the skills from a coaching perspective are transferable so I can perhaps get a job elsewhere, not even related to sport.

“But hopefully these skills will come in handy. Everyone would sit then and perhaps think about themselves, internally, in terms of what (sport’s return) would mean to them. But actually some of the people who sit on the other end and have to produce these sporting moments are going through extremely tough times.”

Abrahams is all about forging opportunities and working his way up. Taking a gamble and moving to the UK in his 20s, he has gone through the amateur game and schools rugby to jobs with Germany and Lithuania sevens. He had roles with the Quins academy and mixed that with work with England’s elite sevens set-up. The chance to take on USA’s talented, diverse group of women and target the all-important Olympics alongside coach Chris Brown was an ideal challenge.

The frustration with how things have panned out with the US comes down largely to the historical mismanagement of finances. Not all of the mess can be blamed on coronavirus. Yet Abrahams also talks of uncertainty of the athletes he worked with, what shifting dates and circumstances can mean for them.

Warren Abrahams

A USA women’s training session (Travis Prior for World Rugby)

On that he adds: “There’s more frustration perhaps for the girls, if you think of some of the older ones who were perhaps going to finish up at the Olympics. Also, you’d imagine some would want to play in the Olympics and then the Rugby World Cup for their own individual profiles – where does this leave some of the girls? Where does it leave the ones who perhaps planned to start a family after the Olympics?

“As you can imagine we were all working towards this common goal, ultimately being in medal contention, but also in terms of individual goals after the Games, for each and every person.

“So there’s a lot of frustration as I know how important it is for female rugby players, because if they can medal in an Olympics or in a Women’s World Cup it makes them more employable in the future (in the States).”

But then there’s that smile again.

Abrahams adds: “On the bright side, I come from a background where I faced a lot of adversity and within this adversity there’s always opportunity, so I will ultimately keep that as a key driver.”

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He describes his upbringing in the Cape Town municipality as “not very well off” and so he has had to “work incredibly hard”. He earned himself a scholarship at Stellenbosch. He has kept knocking on doors since, he says.

The outlook is upbeat. “It’s now about how I use these experiences and all these lessons, how I use my skills as a coach. In a way I believe they’ve made me a really adaptable person.”

He plans to keep ‘upskilling’ himself, so that when job offers do come, he is ready to take it. He wants a job that aligns with his own values, he adds. He wants, he concludes, any discussion about a role that “sets my soul on fire”. Time to set a spark.

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