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October 27, 2020 15 min read

Rugby Wisdom Podcast

Greg McWilliams

 Craig Wilson:Welcome back to the Rugby Wisdom Podcast, and it’s an absolute pleasure to have WorldRugbyShop.com working alongside me on the podcast. If you’re a coach, player, parent, and you’re looking for rugby equipment, apparel, or team kit, WorldRugbyShop.com is the place to visit. I’ve had the pleasure of working alongside this coach for the last five years. Greg McWilliams, he’s got some really interesting views and insights into the game, so let’s jump straight into the conversation.

Greg, welcome to the podcast.

Greg McWilliams: Thanks for having me, Craig.

Craig Wilson: Look, it’s really wonderful to have you on. We’ve worked very closely over the first… Well, the last four or five years, and I think it’s a really good opportunity just to… You’ve got a really unique skillset and experiences that you can draw upon. You’ve worked at school level in Ireland, in Dublin, which is famed for being one of the best around, with St. Michaels and Trinity College. You’ve worked with the Ireland women, leading them to historic victories against New Zealand. You’ve worked at Yale University, USA, and now you’re with New York. So yeah, it’d be really cool just to talk around what experiences have you had from each of those, what have lead you into the next role, and is there any consistencies there, as well?

Greg McWilliams: That’s a great question. I think as a coach, you’re always looking to improve and get better, I suppose, from day to day, week to week, and I think I’ve always had an open mind. I love talking rugby, so I enjoy learning from staff that I’ve worked with in the past, whether you’re a rugby coach, a manager, kit man, they all have something to offer, and I think when you go along the coaching journey, it’s about listening, observing, and learning as much as you can to create each time you’re in a different environment one that the players are going to be connected to. So, I think the big thing recently during lockdown, I’ve done a huge amount of work around what I believe is the layer that sits above the technical aspect of rugby, which is the ability to create a really good learning environment.

You know, there’s times when I was a schoolteacher, so you get used to being quite prescriptive, you get detail and you work on your preparation, but nothing beats having an environment where the players are contributing and they’re getting the opportunity to contribute to the overall plan. So, if you take for example the Irish women, on a Monday or a Tuesday of a test week you can be a little bit more prescriptive as a coach. But certainly, by Thursday-Friday, you’re backing off and the players are able to take control, but that is something that didn’t happen straightaway. That would have taken a bit of time.

To the point that when it came to that weekend where we beat New Zealand, we actually said very little for the whole week. We just made sure that they were training for the right amount of meters, that they were really clear on what the plan was, obviously a bit of research and a lot of video on New Zealand. So, I think that would have taken me over to America, when you turn into Yale and it’s a completely different… It’s a completely different environment, different needs, and that was a real challenge.

And working with you for five years, I mean God, we had some fun. But it was challenging.

Craig Wilson: Yeah, we certainly did, and I always recall a story that you mentioned, like when you’ve moved over to the U.S., and I wasn’t in the U.S. at this time working with Yale, but you were under the posts at one point thinking what have I done? Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

Greg McWilliams: Three weeks in, like I’ll never forget my first training session. We had this field in the corner of the club rec area that was horrendous, and for whatever reason the grass was nearly up to my knees, and there were old balls, cotton jerseys, and there was no identity to rugby. And you know, I came in, I was very positive, I was really looking forward to digging the heels in. Philip Lynch, who hired me, was very clear that I knew what to expect, but nothing prepared me for a match against Coast Guard, when we had a referee who sat in the middle of the field, didn’t move, was wearing a bucket hat, had a big beard, and was wearing this big Bermuda shirt and a pair of sandals and was refereeing.

Craig Wilson: Wow. So, what was your mind thinking at that stage?

Greg McWilliams: Well, I broke down. I broke down and I rang up my wife, Sarah, and I was like, “Pack up, we’re going home.” I was very… I was really clear in my head. You know, I had the tears in the face like, “I had a huge mistake here.” And she was like, “We ain’t going anywhere. We knew it was gonna be like this, so just suck it up.” And I was like, “Okay, Sarah. Thank you.” And I suppose I drew a line there where I wasn’t moping and giving out. It was more a case of right, I need to get to work here, so we went on a journey over five years. Thank God, we’re in a position now where things are very different and you’re in control of it, which is terrific, and doing a great job.

But it’s like that starting point, I mean… I went into the first meeting a week after we got the Women’s Rugby World Cup, and being at the first meeting and eight kids walked in, and two of them were dipping, and I was like, “Where is the rest of the team?” And there wasn’t. So, we had to go straightaway around the university trying to get anybody who was willing to make up and come out and play to make up a squad, to play a game at the weekend. But it was brilliant. You know, we had a group of people at the very start who were so into it. Terrifically smart people who were up for the challenge, and now obviously… How many players are on the squad at the moment? 44?

Craig Wilson: Yeah, we’ve got about 40 on roster now, and that’s thanks to the groundwork what you laid in those early years, and like… So, bringing it back to coaches who are potentially in a similar environment, where they’re coaching on a Tuesday and Thursday night, they’re getting dribs and drabs through, what kind of bit of advice can you give to them to stick with it? To know the good days will come? When everything’s looking like it potentially won’t.

Greg McWilliams: You want them to come back. That’s the biggest thing you can do. It’s like, “How can I make these players come on a Tuesday night, get to training, and want to come back on Thursday?” Because you know, if it wasn’t challenging, if it wasn’t engaging, particularly with Yale kids who need to be stimulated, you can’t bluff. They can see through it straightaway, so you have to be pretty clear on what you wanted out of the player, and as long as they were getting stimulated early on, we’d create as many challenges as we could. There’s so much skill work, so I planned a session, and so if five people showed up or 25 people showed up, we’d be pretty consistent to what it was at the start. And that’s just… That probably came from experience being through a school system, being through the provincial system, where there’s times where you have small numbers and times you have massive numbers.

It’s like, “Right.” Can you adapt in that moment and be able to provide a really good environment for your players? We spend so much time on skill work, simple catch passing, and the very first year we got together a really good group of guys, who ended up qualifying for the national championships for the first time, primarily because we got a few footballers to join us in the spring who were very good athletes, but there’s some really good players at Yale. Joe Murdy was a 10 who played in England, who just wanted… He was a senior when I came in and he just wanted… He’d been waiting for something a little bit different, and the ability to be able to contribute more.

But again, like for me, it’s like understanding, and everybody’s different Craig, right? But to understand the playing group, to be able to connect with them outside of rugby, so know their families, know what their passions are, so you’re able to connect on the level where it’s just slightly different to the norm with sport. But I think there’s something that sits above the technical aspect, and it’s your ability as a coach to create a learning environment that everybody who’s in that squad, your staff, and your players, are all contributing, and can all identify with what you stand for as a group.

Craig Wilson: No, that’s really… some really interesting points, and I just kind of want to dig deeper on the collaborative, or everyone contributing. And I found that really, really quite interesting, because it sounded like when you first came in, it had to be… It just had to be coach heavy, because you were the one bringing everyone together. But how did that kind of evolve where it was like, “Right, I’m gonna start leaning on what the needs of the players are and what they want to achieve,” and is there any thoughts around that?

Greg McWilliams: I think even when I stopped the day-to-day activity at Yale, we probably weren’t at the point where the players were able to contribute as much as you’d like. It was still a little bit prescriptive. I think now, when I look back on your training sessions and how the group, particularly during this lockdown period are contributing, it’s very clear that now it’s able to get more player heavy, because the other I suppose foundations have been set, and you’ve added to that, and you have a player group now I think that understand the process more. We’ve got them at a younger age.

So, if you take RUNY, for example, like everybody else, RUNY is-

Craig Wilson: Just quickly, Rugby United New York, right?

Greg McWilliams: Yeah. Rugby United New York is a professional side that plays in the MLR in America, and I’m judged there on results, where at Yale I was never judged on results, because what we were doing was something bigger than a win. It was reestablishing a program that was nearly 150 years old. And at Rugby United New York, if I lose three games in a row, you’re under pressure to hold on to your job. But still, you have to trust your process. The way I coach continuously evolves. Like the way I’m coaching now and my mindset to rugby now is very, very different to the way it was I’d say even a month ago, and that’s primarily because I’ve got some brilliant people that I lean on and I work with, but RUNY is very player centered. I mean, the players are the ones who are very much running our environment. That’s guided by the staff.

With the United States, for example, that’s another different environment. So, I was director of rugby at Yale while I was working with USA, and I was also the head coach of Rugby United New York while coaching with USA, so you’re nearly changing hats, going from one side of the week to the other, but you’re still connecting with players whether you’re at Yale, Irish women, coaching a club side in New York, it doesn’t matter. Your first immediate goal is to have a real empathy for the players and everything that we do is to make the players better.

It’s not about us as coaches, and so our job isn’t necessarily to feel good about ourselves. It’s making sure that the players feel good, that they’re having a good time, and our job is to create that.

Craig Wilson: Yeah. I like how you keep referring to like there’s a higher being, as it were, than just a game, and I find that fascinating that essentially coaching is a people business, right? You’re interacting with people and it also keeps you relevant, because you’re interacting with people who are always evolving, society’s always evolving, and one of my biggest learnings I’ve ever had as a coach is actually away from the X’s and O’s. It’s about the ability to connect with someone, but do it genuinely, as well, and authentically, and a lot of our time, and same with when you were over here with us… Well, you still are, but in New Haven at Yale.

A lot of our day is actually spent having coffees or meeting the players, just hearing what they’re talking about, and you’re not necessarily… You probably go in with an agenda to talk about rugby, but you actually move away and you’re talking about how’s their sister doing, how’s their family doing, did you pass that test, what’s going on, and those are the real human connections, and I think as this world… I truly believe this. As this world is getting more and more automated, the need for a coach, or a mentor, or a parent to be engaged on a human level I think is becoming an absolute premium. Yeah, I just found that really cool how you were really hitting those points. It doesn’t matter if you’re coaching a player who is brand new to the game, or you’re coaching someone who’s trying to beat England for USA in a World Cup.

Greg McWilliams: Totally. I think those connections, no matter what business you’re in, are the cornerstone of whether you will be I think successful or not. Australia played New Zealand at the weekend in a really entertaining game, but Scott Wisemantel, who was the attack coach for England, is the new attack coach for Australia, and I reached out to him after the game. I was like, “Mate, brilliant performance. Very clear,” which it is very clear that he’s had a big stamp on what Australia are doing. Because he creates that environment that’s very energetic, that’s very challenging, that’s very detailed, and you can see it in how the players play. I thought Australia’s attack was really, really effective. The speed of the ball was great.

And that doesn’t necessarily come from Scott Wisemantel going in and saying, “Hey, this is how we’re gonna play.” He goes in there and says, “Look, what do we want to do? What do we want to achieve? How are we going to achieve it? What’s it look like? Does everyone understand what it looks like? Excellent. Okay, look,” and then he will create a working week where he challenges the players’ skillset and understanding under fatigue.

So, when it comes to the weekend, you’re seeing just a team that’s very cohesive, that has very good rhythm, that understands positive momentum and how to play it. And that for me is so interesting about the game, way more interesting than the technical side, or the tactical side. It’s that understanding, that level of detail and communication that you can have with your players that can just be so powerful. That’s what gets me up in the morning. That’s what gets me excited about coaching is trying to get to that point. And finally, on this matter, there’s an incredible podcast. There was a gentleman called Tim Gallwey who wrote a book called The Inner Game of Tennis, and ironically it’s not about tennis, and it’s fascinating. He was a country club tennis coach and he’d lost the will to live in terms of coaching. So, he was just sitting back on his chair and he was sick of the sound of his own voice, so he decided to coach by not speaking.

The player was the one who constantly was telling him what they needed to do, so he just watched. He noticed that the player was improving. So, he went from that one eureka moment where he realized that he wasn’t really educating the players that he was coaching, and he decided to change it up, and as a result, he became one of the best known environmental I suppose developers in the world of sport and business. So, that’s really appealing for me, and if you ever get the chance to look at that podcast, it is… It’s phenomenal. It really had a big impact in how I’m viewing myself and my role in any environment. Whether that’s at Yale, or whether that’s with the USA Eagles, or whether that’s in RUNY, doesn’t actually matter. There’s something that sits above anything else and that’s what I constantly strive for in any environment that I’m in.

Craig Wilson: That’s a really fascinating story about the coach who actually… For the way you look at it, did less, but essentially did more, and it actually reminds me of a podcast I did with Brian Ashton a couple of weeks ago, and he says he was using the word be courageous in not saying too much, because usually it’s a filler for us as a coach, to make us feel better, when actually the environment doesn’t need it. And I could particularly sense even myself, I’ve really gotta be strong with it. When I come out of COVID, I might be coaching for the first time of six, seven, eight months, and I just want to get everything out there because I’m so excited, but actually being courageous enough to step back, watch, and let the kind of uncomfortable silence reign over the environment, because what you’ll probably find is that the team will start to find answers themselves.

So, even if they don’t necessarily find answers, they’re communicating. They’re collaborating. And trying to take away that we must feel that coach is king, or queen, or the top person in the environment. We’re actually… It’s not. It’s the player or it’s the individual. Really, really fascinating, that.

Greg McWilliams: Yeah. That podcast was called Against The Rules with Michael Lewis, and it’s about the coach in your head. It’s on Apple Podcasts and that story merged into another situation with a softball coach. It’s a short podcast, but it literally changed so much. So, again, it’s like when you watch a game of rugby, or you listen to a podcast, or you watch a demonstration that a coach sends you, every time I listen or watch anything, I’m always thinking, “How is it relevant to me?” So, I’m not gonna replicate what I see. I’m really clear now in what I want to do as a coach. Whether that’s right or wrong, I’m being true to myself so I need to build up my power by becoming better at anything I can, and so that players or coaches who work with me feel that they have a massive role to play, and they do.

I mean, my assistant coach at Rugby United New York, Marty Veale, he knows at this stage that because he’s so technically excellent, and tactically very, very smart, that he knows that he’s contributing massively to how we’re playing, and you want that with your staff, because then they’re gonna work harder because they feel they’re making a big impact.

Craig Wilson: Yeah, it’s a fascinating world we’re in. Look, I’m biased and I’m sure you are as well, like it’s the best job in the world. You’re dealing with people and you’re all… I feel there’s nothing better than trying to get people aligned and getting on a journey together. Thank you very much-

Greg McWilliams: It’s only taken six months.

Craig Wilson: I know. I had to get past your agent, but we managed to get there now, so-

Greg McWilliams: Yeah. I changed agents halfway through the summer. That wasn’t expected. There’s one final thing I will leave you with. I applied for a job at the IRFU. I was working with the Leinster under-19s boys team, coaching at Michael’s, and I applied for the Irish under-18s coaching job. And it was probably my biggest learning, and I’m only really understanding it now, and for any young coach, it’s a mistake that I made, and I’d just like to share it.

They gave you the five points before the last interview, so it went down from X amount of coaches down to the last five, and our last interview was going into the IRFU office and putting together a presentation on the five questions that were given to us two weeks before the final interview. So, I spent my whole time putting together this interview and using terminology and jargon that I’d heard other coaches use, particularly within the IRFU, so I was putting together what I believed to be the best information and the best presentation for me to get hired as the head coach of the under-18s Irish side.

I did the interview. I felt it went okay, but I wasn’t comfortable, because I wasn’t speaking from the heart and from my brain, which would have made the conversation flow much better. I was constantly wary about the terms I was using, even terms I didn’t understand. And I got a call a couple of days after the interview from a gentleman called Allen Clarke, who at the time was the high performance manager, who’s just taken over Dallas as their head coach, and he said, “Greg, you didn’t get the interview, or you didn’t get the job.” And I was disappointed. I said, “Do you mind me asking you why?”

And he said, “Well, look. We wanted to interview Greg McWilliams and we felt we didn’t. We just got another person who we’ve seen come through the door so often.” And from that moment really, which is 2009, maybe 2010, the biggest thing I said is, “I’m always gonna be myself.” So, if I do get a job in a particular environment, I know I can go in there and be myself, because they’ve employed me for who I am.

So, for any coach out there who’s trying to find their path, whatever makes you tick, just back yourself, because if it’s not the right environment you’re in at the moment, eventually you’ll find that right environment and it’ll just make your job so much easier as a coach to be able to be yourself and to do all you can to make the team better. It’s the one thing that I’m really, really aware of now, is I have to be myself and I have to be unique. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Craig Wilson: And this podcast is called Rugby Wisdom, and I think what a way to end there. Thanks for sharing that. That was obviously very, very personal, but such a really valuable tool for us all to take on board, so thanks for your time, Greg. Really a pleasure to have you with me.

Greg McWilliams: Craig, always a pleasure, and look, I’ll be talking to you in the next couple of days, but terrific stuff and thanks for having me on.

Craig Wilson: Cheers, mate.

Greg McWilliams: Cheers.

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