VANCOUVER, BC - A rare opportunity presented itself last week when we were able to sit down with two of the world's most renowned rugby coaches when Sir Graham Henry and Wayne Smith stopped in Vancouver as part of their promotion for the new online coaching platform 'The Rugby Site' (www.therugbysite.com).
Between their busy schedule of traveling, a five hour coaching clinic with 110 plus coaches in Burnaby, an on-field session with Canada's under-20s and a Rugby Canada fundraising dinner, we had the chance to ask Henry and Smith about everything from their new site to their views on North American rugby.
It was an informative session with Henry, a five-time iRB Coach of the Year and a 2011 Rugby World Cup champion. Henry was also the 2005 British and Irish Lions coach and a winner of five Tri Nations titles (three grand slams) during his decorated career with the New Zealand All Blacks. More recently, Henry has worked with Argentina and as a Technical Director with Super Rugby franchise The Blues.
The interview also provided insight from Wayne Smith, Henry's assistant coach during the 2011 World Cup run who had previously coached the All Blacks himself in the late '90s. Smith, Henry and now current All Blacks coach Steve Hansen are often referred to as the 'Three Wise Men' of New Zealand rugby.
Smith led the Crusaders to a pair of Super 12 titles in 1998 and '99 and also won the Heineken Cup with Northampton Saints soon after. Since the 2011 'Thrashing of the French' - as Henry and Smith refer to their 8-7 Rugby World Cup final victory - Smith has been Technical Director for the Chiefs who are now two-time super Rugby defending champions.
We started off asking about their recent adventures with The Rugby Site, which saw the duo holding coaching sessions in Minnesota the weekend before coming to Vancouver. When asked about how their new platform was meant to aid coaches in North American rugby, Henry spoke of teaching best practices that could be applied to all levels of the game.
"The message that we have is about providing personal meaning for those who are playing the game," Henry said. "It's also important to look at the role of the coach and what the job really means to the players."
"It's important to have a clear vision of the game, to be able to recognize weaknesses in defence and to have a strategic view of how the game is played," Smith added. "We aren't just providing skills and drills sessions."
When asked about the level of coaches they had been working with, Smith said they had seen the full spectrum and were impressed by how passionate even the inexperienced coaches were for rugby.
"In Minneapolis there were coaches who have never played the game," Smith said. "There were coaches there whose team was in a national championship. It's important that they are open to thinking about the game and wanting to learn new ideas."
When asked specifically about Canadian rugby and what coaches could do to improve the standard of play, Henry mentioned the grit the national team has been known for, but also the need for more development at younger stages of a player's career.
"We played the Canadians a few times and they were tough men with a level of physicality. They never bend," Henry said. "But it's about the upbringing in the game and the need for better skill level."
"I would say there is a British sense of the game here with emphasis on the set piece and territory. That type of game is similar to what's played in the British Isles where the type of play is a reflection of the climate," Henry added. "New Zealand rugby is different as it's played in good weather and lends itself to ball-in-hand rugby."
Henry also shared his perspective on the importance of strengthening rugby at the school level and the need for stronger foundations to improve the game at the senior level.
"In New Zealand we are fortunate for really strong secondary school competitions - and I'm talking about ages 13-18 - where there are spirited competitions and rivalries. These provide marvellous breeding grounds for New Zealand rugby," Henry added. "In the Northern Hemisphere I don think they have enough of those competitions in place. Of course the biggest challenge, as it is in many places, is bridging the gap from schools to adult rugby."
Smith's perspective of Northern versus Southern Hemisphere rugby looked more at the officiating of the game.
"The big difference is refereeing the breakdown," Smith said. "We are on our feet and you can't put your hands on the ground. That effects the speed of the ball. The trends of the game are still remarkably similar but those [things] make a difference."
When asked about the required experience for coaching the game, Henry spoke of his own rugby career and how the best coaches weren't necessarily the best players.
"I was an average player," Henry said. "I played senior rugby for 10 years but didn't play representative. Coaches need the desire to keep getting better, to self improve and to be able to hang in there."
Both coaches had spells overseas with Henry coaching Wales and the British and Irish Lions, and Smith coaching Northampton Saints in England.
"International coaching helps resilience and it stretches guys to coach players that you don't know. But there's nothing like coaching your own people," Henry said. "But what's really needed is greater apprenticeship, the need to understand the levels of the game. There are probably more opportunities in this country for those who haven't played internationally to coach at higher levels."
That's where their new coaching platform comes into play, as aspiring coaches can learn from the world's best through video tutorials. The resource is there for coaches new to the game and Henry and Smith are currently working on the outreach and building awareness of what they're providing.
"Ironically, the places where the site could have the biggest impact are countries where there might be less rugby being played," Smith said. "We have both players and coaches contribute to it but the issue has been reach to those places."
"We have the best executors of aspects of the game and modules that would be great for all coaches," Henry said. "It's a global product and a brilliant method for getting the word out there."
Coaches who attended the BC Rugby and Rugby Canada clinic on December 2nd were provided with a one-year free subscription to the site. Those interested in purchasing memberships are encouraged to visit www.therugbysite.com