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October 27, 2020 43 min read

Rugby Bricks Podcast

Interview w/ Mike Cron

 

Mike Cron:If they’re only 90% committed to the task of shoving their head into a dark cave with one and a half ton going through their ass, we got a problem.

Peter Breen: Three, two, one. Mike Cron, thank you so much for taking the time and doing this. It’s great to see you.

Mike Cron: My pleasure.

Peter Breen: I guess we’re gonna go into scrum chat, which I know everyone’s really excited to hear about and hear your knowledge, but I guess this is a bit of a hard question, but I want a bit of an overview of you as a student, as going through school, and a little bit of a background on where you grew up and how you got a interest in rugby.

Mike Cron: Okay. Yep. I was youngest of four boys and we lived in Riccarton in Christchurch here, and I started rugby at four. My older brothers are 8, 10 and 12 years older. One ended up an All Black open side flanker. And so, I started rugby young and played cricket and rugby all the way through. I went to Hillmorton High. My first 15 coach was an ex-All Black hooker called Dennis Young. My first 11 cricket coach was a guy called Victor Pollard, so I was very blessed with top quality coaches. And I was hell bent on playing rugby, and it was my focus until… I was New Zealand co-captain for a couple of years on the New Zealand Juniors, and then at 27, I got what you’d call today as compartment syndrome, but back then they didn’t know what it was in both legs, so that finished my career and I got asked to go on and coach St. Andrews boys 15.

So, that was about 1983, ’84 or so, around there.

Peter Breen: Yeah. I want to… Yeah, I want to pick up on that cricket thing, because I know that a lot of people that play other sports and try different things learn a lot from it. Was that a sport with all the detail that goes along with cricket that you really fell in love with?

Mike Cron: Yeah. Well, you mentioned growing up in Christchurch, way back when I was a kid, in winter you went down to the park and you used the goalpost and you played forcing back. And in summer, you went down the road and we all played cricket. And you went home when it get dark. I mean, that was every night. If you didn’t do that, you went round to the one and only swimming pool and we all swam. So, that was how we were brought up. See, we never had TV till 1964 Tokyo Olympics, so I was born in ’54, so the first 10 years, you’re just playing sport. You know?

Peter Breen: Yeah. What were you? Batter or bowler?

Mike Cron: Both. Both. Batter and bowler first drop, and should have been a bit lot further down, I would have suggested.

Peter Breen: So, you’re 27 years old and you can’t play anymore, and you’re sort of forced into that early retirement. Was coaching something that you, as a player, knew that it was something you wanted to get into?

Mike Cron: Well, I actually got involved in coaching, like I remember back in New Zealand Colts in 1973, Jack Gleason was the head coach, and we did an internal tour of the north island, two week tour, and he was the only management. So, Jack said, “You coach the forwards. I’ll coach the backs and the team.” Righto. So, I was a year young, so you imagine a year young boy. I was only 19 coaching the New Zealand, captain of the New Zealand Colts, and coaching the forwards.

And then the second year I was captain again, and this time the union gave us a baggage… slash manager. But again, we did the same roles. I coached the forwards; Jack did the team and the backs. So, you sort of pushed in whether you liked it, or you didn’t like it. You were pushed into coaching. And then when I was playing seniors, it was actually Steve Hanson’s father, Des. He was coaching here and he’d ring me up to get me to go over and help coach their scrum on the off nights. So, I’d go and help them, and then I was helping different grade Canterbury teams, so it just sort of evolved, really.

Peter Breen: And you got your knowledge from your own learning and own curiosity? Or who helped you with your knowledge around that?

Mike Cron: I would say I only had about 10% knowledge back then of what I’ve got now, so when I went coaching, I knew I didn’t have enough knowledge, and I’ve always had a thirst for knowledge and still have. So, probably a couple of are the main guys I’d lean to, because I wanted to understand how you use your body and how I can teach my players to use it better than the opponent, so I started to go into sumo wrestling camps, and Royal New Zealand Ballet, and cage fighting camps. I went into NFL, NBA, ice hockey. Basketball. I went into net ball. Anything at all of different sport at a high quality, at a high level, I’d go in and try and spend a week. Melbourne Storm, I spent a week with them.

Yeah, so just trying to look and see how I can take something from their sport, transfer it into my sport.

Peter Breen: I’m interesting in that, because I’d imagine those opportunities in those weeks are slightly easier to organize when you’ve got a title and a role like the All Blacks scrum coach. What were you doing before you had sort of those things beside your name?

Mike Cron: Yep. So, I was sort of helping here at Canterbury. You know, the Canterbury what you call minor team cup. It was all voluntary in those days. I’d go and help Steve Hansen down there. I’d help the academy. Andrew Hall, who’s now the CEO of the Blues, he was the Canterbury Academy manager. So, I’d help there, and then when Steve got the job at Crusaders, I’d go and run their scrum for them. So, and then you got involved with the referees, and you got involved with all the little Canterbury sides, and the first 15s and second 15s, and then the club side, so most Mondays to Thursdays, I’d coach voluntary, which I think was a great learning. It was a really good apprenticeship. I probably did a 20-year apprenticeship before I got into professional rugby.

Peter Breen: Yeah. And I suppose… I’m big on how you do the free things is how you do everything, and putting the effort into that, so that’s awesome to hear you had such a long apprenticeship, as you put it. I’m interested in all these other sports that you learned from, and what I want to go now is probably that first opportunity that you got called in to do a session with the All Blacks. So, maybe just touch on that and what those feelings were going into that, but then also how you could apply some of those learnings from those other sports.

Mike Cron: Sure. I first got involved back in 2000, 2001, when Wayne Smith was head coach and Tony Gilbert was the forward coach. So, back about 2000, 2001, Wayne Smith was head coach of the All Blacks. Tony Gilbert was the forward coach. And they asked me to come in and run the odd scrum session, because in those days no team had scrum coaches as such. So, it’s quite daunting, and you’re walking in, and you’re meeting the Taine Randalls and Anton Olivers of this world. You know, who’re your heroes. And I think coaches are no different to players, that when you go to the next level, a high level, you have self doubt. And I think just by acknowledging that you do have self doubt, I think that helps a lot.

So, anyway, I went in there and I ran some sessions, and I also took along my biomechanist mate with me, and he’d help me, and we’d analyze the hell out of things, and-

Peter Breen: Can you remember your first one? Your very first. Can you remember what sort of concept you were going in there with and hopefully the boys like this?

Mike Cron: Well, I know when I turned up, the main thing was what attire I was wearing, so it didn’t have any conflict with the sponsor. That seemed to be more important than what I was coaching. But I took over full time in 2004, because 2003, I went with Wales, Steve Hansen, to the World Cup. As their scrum coach. And then from 2004 to 2011, I was the All Blacks scrum coach, and then from 2012, I took over the breakdown, the line out, the scrum, and then… Fossie and I ran the kickoffs. That’s been marvelous to… I’ve had a real passion, actually, about the line out and breakdown. Yeah, I really enjoyed coaching the All Blacks in that.

Peter Breen: Yeah. I’m definitely gonna come back and touch on that. I’m interested to hear again about those, the sports that you learned from, and some of the stuff you were able to inject straightaway.

Mike Cron: Yeah. Well, say at the Melbourne Storm, the league boys, they had a great defense coach who was their strength and conditioning coach, who is into Brazilian jiu-jitsu. So, he had a heck of a lot of drills and activities he could show me about understanding your body, like really… Bit of fun, but really tough drills. One on one. And so, I picked up a lot off him. Sumo wrestling, I picked up about the importance of how you get power from the ground, through their feet, and generate through an opponent. So, that helped me for… Well, scrummaging, mauling, tackling, clean out.

We have two contact points. Shoulders and feet. And how far apart they should be is important, so I understand all the biomechanics of it, and then you coach it for your sweet spot. For all those activities, they’re all the same. So, for your clean out, your tackle, your maul, and your scrum, just think of your two contact points. When you hit with your shoulders and your power comes from your feet, through your legs, through your body, into your opponent, and that’s how we can generate the power. So, I learned a lot off the sumo boys about how they hold the ground with their toes and how they get power from the ground.

Yeah, quite fascinating all that sort of stuff, you know? Sometimes you don’t see it when you’re watching.

Peter Breen: And the ballet? I can imagine. And the experience with the ballet, as well? What’d you pick up from that?

Mike Cron: Okay. Ballet. Okay, two main things there. Ballet and American football are quite high in the injury called turf toe, so that’s the one where just under the big toe, the sesamoid there, and-

Peter Breen: I’ve had it.

Mike Cron: Yeah. We get it in New Zealand. You don’t have to be a front rower, like Kieran Read had it just coming off the defensive line, and he felt it go. Anthony Boric had two operations on it, the lock. But generally, it’s the front row boys through pressure through the big toe. So, ballet get it, so I was keen to find out how to prevent it. So, when I went in there, that was my main question, and the artistic director, we would call coach, but they call an artistic director. He was Italian but spoke excellent English. He said that they hardly ever get turf toe now so long as you make sure that when you jump and land, that it’s all off the second toe, not your big toe.

Now, when you had a knee injury and you got to the physio, and they got you to do one-legged knee bends, they always told you to track over your second toe. That’s your tracking line. So, that made sense once he said that. I was like, “Well, Christ. When we get an injury, the physio always gets us to do that.” So, then I can go back and tell my boys, and then when I’m coaching first 15s or youngsters, I can make sure that they spread their weight across their toes and just have a mindset of trying to get more power through the second toe, not just the big one.

So, we might have prevented one injury a year. Who knows?

Peter Breen: Yeah. What a great point. Perfect example. How’d you find the Melbourne Storm and what’d you pick up not only from what you learned with their physical stuff, but just the environment?

Mike Cron: Well, it’s great, you see, because Craig Bellamy, he’s been in twice. Yeah, it’s interesting, of course. When you watch, observe different cultures, different philosophies. We are probably in the All Blacks, we give it to the players. They do a lot of the stand up reviews, and talks, and presentations. Whereas in the league, boys don’t tend to do that so much. You know, so not saying who’s right and wrong. I’m just saying that is a difference.

No, they’re very good. Great. Very good. I enjoyed my time over there.

Peter Breen: With the wrestling side of things, because you see a lot of rugby teams doing it now, and tapping into wrestling, and a lot of teams do it I suppose in the preseason and don’t go back to it. What sort of impact have you had within the All Blacks environment? How often? Why is it so valuable?

Mike Cron: I think wrestling’s the… If you’re only allowed to do one of those other sports, wrestling would be the one. Just don’t teach my players how to be a wrestler. Just teach them about body awareness. So, an example, your old mate, Carl Hayman, when Zac got injured many, many years ago, I brought him up home here to my house in Christchurch and I arranged to take him out to Rodney Jarman, who’s a local wrestling coach. He was the coach of the New Zealand wrestling team.

So, I took Zac out there. I think was with him, too. Jamie. And an hour 50 of getting smashed out there, and there was a darn kid who was 16 who beat the shit out of them, and that was a guy called Jon Moody. He was 16. They didn’t teach them. It was just all skills, and body activity, and wrestling, like just you and I having a ruddy wrestle. But it was give minute wrestles, 30 second rest, repeat it three times. That sort of thing.

And they had the proper wrestling mat, so you couldn’t get injured really. But I found all that stuff really, really interesting, and Rodney and I have been mates right throughout, actually. And I’m always asking him for ideas even today.

Peter Breen: So, in the boys, and I don’t know if many of them would, but if they say, “Mike, why are we doing this?” What’s your answer?

Mike Cron: Oh, yeah. I’m all for that, because it’s safe to make a mistake when I’m asking to do something for the first time. It’s safe, you know what I mean? Now, once… And the other thing is is that the best coach, when we’re training, I used to say it every week. Who is the best coach here? And the boys would say, “The guy we’re doing an activity with.” Correct. So, say for instance you are doing a… You’re tackling me on a hit pad, right? I’m holding the hit pad. You’re tackling me. One v. one. You might do 10 in a row. Now, how do you know that you’re doing it right? The coach can only see one tackle at a time, so what I always encouraged was we need 32 coaches out here.

So, when you come in and do a punt rep and I’m holding a hit pad, you would expect me to say, “Great punch rep. Good front leg drive. Hit and stopped. Hit and angled up.” So, you then go back and repeat, and you correct. So, instead of doing 10 reps where probably eight of them could be shit for all you know, we might have one, and we self-correct, and the other nine are good. So, that’s a safe learning environment, that I’ll help you, because you’re gonna help me.

Peter Breen: Yeah. I really rate that. And continuing on with the coaching and probably the wrestling theme, when it comes to scrummaging, what are some of the things the boys take out of those hard wrestling sessions, getting their asses dealt to, into a scrum?

Mike Cron: Well, it’s knowing where your body is, so we have to educate them on how to use their body. There’s two most important things for scrummaging. All you’re trying to do is get eight people to work in the same direction at the same time, and you’re trying to get eight people to have the ability to stay strong with movement. So, it’s that movement part that a lot of coaches don’t know how to coach up. The right kind of scrum … But a lot of stuff we do, there’s movement, and there’s adjusting, and so I do a lot of drills with movement. I do a lot of drills with your eyes shut, so you have to feel everything around you, and that gets you to react a lot quicker.

So, your feel is quicker than eyes.

Peter Breen: Yeah. I’ve heard you mention that a couple times in some of the videos. I want to go into some of your scrum coaching. I’ve watched some of your stuff and I’ve actually seen you firsthand. You did a session down in Otago that I watched. I played first five my whole career, and so I just watched you coach because I was interested to see how you do your thing, and I loved how quickly you engaged all the coaches that were there to watch the players, and just broke down that wall within a minute and just let’s get on with it.

But I want you to touch on kind of your three areas that I’ve heard you mention. The balance, speed, and power, and maybe just explain why they’re important to you when it comes to coaching.

Mike Cron: Balance we need right across the board, not just for scrummaging. So, I went and spent a day with Tom Walsh, the world champion shot putter, and part of his warmup is he hops on a slack line, like a tightrope if you like. It’s just a strut with a ratchet on it, you know? So, he goes out there, this big man, it’s proper he was, , he was. And he tippytoes along this tightrope, this slack line. So, should I like that. He said, “It’s good for my balance,” but it’s also he was too one-sided strong than the other. It helped balance him up.

So, I went and bought a couple of those and took them to the All Blacks. So, our boys started using them. Every Tuesday in the gym, we’d tie them between apparatus as part of their weights. They’re coming back around and hop on this slack line and do their slack line. So, hints. Just from shot putting. What’d you learn, you know?

And even from that, I’m having coffee tomorrow with Dale Stevenson, who’s Tom’s coach. So, we still communicate, and catch up, and just coaches talking. Yeah.

Peter Breen: The boys must have loved that.

Mike Cron: Pardon?

Peter Breen: The boys must have loved having a crack at that.

Mike Cron: I’ll tell you how they love it. The first time I used it, I tied it between two goal posts, and the boys all come out there and they’re all practicing after training, and then that next day, I get a video from He’s gone out and got one. He’s tied it to his tire bar of his car, across to a tree, and he did the whole length and got his wife to video it, and then they sent it to me. He, yeah, it was a challenge for him to do the whole length of it, and he did it, you know? Yeah. Right.

Peter Breen: So, that’s the importance of balance. Speed was the next one that I’ve heard you mention.

Mike Cron: Well, when the referee says set, there has to be some form of movement forward. Otherwise, you get hit on your heels. You have to generate some form of forward momentum. So, in today’s new scrum rules, there’s a very small gap. So, you have to educate your players to fire out of the blocks. So, no different to you when you were doing your speed training and you had harness on you, and then they released you, so you over sped. Overspeed training. I do it the same with line out jumpers. I have a speed jump, I get them to jump quick, and they can physically through different bands. So, scrummaging, I put harness on them with a D-ring at the front, line them up on a slid, single sled scrum machine I gotta crouch behind.

When I say sit, they have to engage. But when I call sit, I fire them in. So, they’re actually engaging far quicker than they would in a game, so I overspeed train them. So, they learn, you do 10 of those with the harness, and then do 10 without the harness, they’ve got their firing pattern. They can operate off a small gap or a big gap, but they know how to really fire. Overspeed train them.

Peter Breen: Yep. That makes complete sense. And then the third one of the three, so balance, speed, and then the power.

Mike Cron: You get power as I said from the ground and how you transfer it through your body. So, the strongest pushing position really is as I said to you before. We have two contact points. Shoulders and feet. If you draw a line from the front of your shoulder to the front of your toe, and you draw a line or hold a flag stick, it should just cut across the front part of your knee. So, say an inch behind the front of your knee. That’s the line. They call it a biarticular line. That’s the strongest position, biarticular, for human beings to be in, in a horizontal position.

So, that’s what you’re trying to find. When you are there, your knee is roughly 120 degrees at the knee. So, when you’re in the squat rack, and you go down the bottom, and you come back up, about a third of the way up, you find that sweet spot where you know you can power out of it. If you pause at that sweet spot, that’s roughly 120 degrees at your knee. So, my job is to teach them how to generate the power, so the best way is to be in that strongest pushing position biomechanically. So, I educate them with harness gear and all sorts of stuff to get them to that nice, strong pushing position, load them, a bit more isometric loading, and then I get them to do a fair bit of movement, because you move and then get back into your strong spot. Move, back into your strong spot. So, you educate them on where their sweet spot is at all times.

That’s your strong spot.

Peter Breen: I think your example of the squat I think everyone can relate to. That sweet spot. Being able to get out of it.

Mike Cron: Well, we all just squatters in a squat rack, scrummagers. When you come into the squat rack, you put the bar across your traps, you shorten your neck, you give a big chest, you do a pelvic tilt, you lock your core, your feet are shoulder width apart. When you come down, you gotta pelvic tilt, you’re strong, and when you come back up, you find that sweet spot and power out. So, that… We just gotta educate them from being vertical to horizontal.

Peter Breen: When it comes down to the individual, how much time do you like to be able to spend with someone? I’m a goal kicker and love coaching people to kick, but as you know, it takes a long time to get your ideas and get them really, really nailing the skill. What’s your take?

Mike Cron: Yep. If you get a young… I go and help at the under 20s every year. I’d say four years.

Peter Breen: Wow.

Mike Cron: Yeah. Four years for a prop to really hone his technique, because he’s doing other stuff, as well. Learning how to be a great defender, and great ball carrier, and great passer, and all this other stuff. But for scrummaging, he needs about four years under his belt, I’ve found.

Peter Breen: I’m stoked you brought that up. So, that four years, what does that look like week to week? How many hours and repetitions, and how much work does it take?

Mike Cron: Well, you can shortcut it if you’re a guy like Owen Franks, who every second of every day, he’s doing his setups, he’s checking himself in the mirror, he’s getting his repetitions in. But it’s no good repeating something if it’s not right. So, there is no place for practicing bad technique, whether it be catch pass, whether it be kicking a goal, or whether it be setting yourself up in the scrums. So, you need to practice that, and it needs to come… You just have to get that setup part right. So, when you’re locking yourself to a golf coach, what… Our job, like you’re a goal kicker and I’m say a scrum guy, our job as golf coaches is to get them to hold the club and address the ball correctly. That’s our first job.

If we can’t get them to do that on a regular basis, the odds of them hitting the ball where they want it is very slim. So, really nail that first part, which is your setup. So, again, you just gotta get the numbers in of repeating good techniques, so it just comes natural, even under fatigue. It’s natural for you.

Peter Breen: You mentioned Owen Franks and I’m wondering if there’s an example of someone that was a real slow burn, they just couldn’t get it, and maybe an example of how long it took for someone to finally click with something in the scrum?

Mike Cron: Well, some of them are restricted by their body. An example, some young front rowers, they scrummage up on their toes. The reason is they’re dorsiflexion hasn’t developed properly enough to allow them to get more sprigs in the ground, so they’re basically scrummaging up on their tippytoes. Any movement, they collapse.

Now, so they’ve just gotta get the time in, one, it’s flexibility through the ankle joint, make sure there’s no impediment there, impingement there. The other thing is getting thousands of bloody setups in to get into that range of motion so you can get down and give yourself a fighter’s chance, because you haven’t got a chance up on your toes with no sprigs in the ground. I’ll give you the tip. And it’s not through them wanting to do it. They physically can’t actually do it. These are younger guys. As you get older, you can. So, how you shortcut it, get the numbers up. Get the numbers into getting into that motion, so you can get that dorsiflexion operating properly.

Peter Breen: I’m a big believer in flow training and flow state training, where you don’t have to be doing everything at 100%. You can have those sessions where you’re just working around 70, 80%, and I’m wondering if scrum positioning and getting all these reps in, where it doesn’t have to be full noise all the time. Are you a believer and use that?

Mike Cron: Yep. Yeah, I am. Yeah. Yeah. Because you’re coaching and I’m learning. Learning is motivation. Motivation’s enjoyment, so they have to… Every time you go to coach them, they have to be learning. So, for me, I never coach without video, unless it’s shocking with the conditions. I always have the ability to say, “Let’s go and have a look at that one.” And we go to the tent, which is next door to me, and there’s two massive TV screens, and we replay the last maul, the last line out, the last scrum, whatever we want to look at. And talk about it. What have we seen? Yeah. A lot of coaches say, “Oh, I haven’t got time for that stuff.” So, I’d rather do say 10 mauls, which are rubbish. I’d rather do 5, but they’re quality. Because we do two, go and have a look at it, maybe do one more, have a look at it, do two more, come and have a look at it, so you’re always checking.

Again, no place for poor technique. That’s learning. So, I do the same with scrums. I have about four, five cameras going. I want to look at something, or the boys say to me, “Can I have a look at that, Cron?” Of course, you can. I’ll never say no to them.

Peter Breen: With the days where… I think it was ’04 to ’11, where you were the scrum coach and weren’t in other areas. How did you go with time? Because these guys all have the Super Rugby commitments. They come to the All Blacks and it must feel quite rushed, so how do you get enough time in the week to spend on that?

Mike Cron: Good question. What I did, I used to go around the franchises reasonably regularly, watch them at training. Some coaches would say, “Could you take a scrum session so I can stand back and watch?” You know? No problem. So, I’m there observing the player. I’m observing all the games. The footage. Et cetera, et cetera. So, you’re probably doing three quarters of the work before you get hands on them in the All Blacks, but the biggest thing for coaches, every coach will tell you no matter what area he coaches, he never has enough time.

And I was the same, and I’d walk away frustrated. I never nailed what I wanted to nail. And then I worked out that the head coach isn’t gonna give any more time, so how the hell are you gonna deal with this? So, there’s two things I come up with. For about the last six, seven years, after every session I coach in any area, of any team, I rate myself out of 10 how I coached it. Then I rate out of 10 how much learning did they get. Now, if I rated myself 9 out of 10 about how I coached it, but their learning was 2 out of 10, we’ve got a problem. So, they have to be hand in hand. I have to coach well, but they have to learn. They have to be learning.

The next thing was how do I get rid of the frustration of the clock on me? So, most coaches says, “You got 25 minutes to run your session.” So, you get your bit of paper the night before and you write number one, I’m doing this. Two minutes. Number two, I’m doing that. Three minutes. Number three, and you work your way down. And you know exactly what you want, and you know how long it’s gonna take. You’ve played it in your mind 100 times. Off you go. You coach it. You’re looking at your watch. After two minutes, you blow the whistle and right, we’re on to the next thing.

Little Johnny says, “Oh, can we do one more of that, Cron?” No, no. We haven’t got time for that. “Can I have a look at it on the video?” No. We’ll look at it after training. So, you get to the next one, and then the players don’t bother talking, because they know they’re getting nowhere. You’re under the watch. The watch is dictating how you coach. And at the end of the session, you walk away very frustrated and you’re pissed off because the head coach hasn’t given you enough time. So, what I learned was write my six things out, by all means. Then circle the two that you must nail at all costs. Then, I go and see the trainer and I say, “Tell me when I’ve got two minutes left in my session.” So, I virtually never look at my watch again.

The watch doesn’t control me.

Peter Breen: I really like that, and-

Mike Cron: The flow that you get, and you coach completely differently. Can we have a look at that last lineout maul, Cron? Of course, we can. Can we do one more? Yep, sure. No problem, boys. Yep. Yep. Yep. And all of a sudden, out of the six things that I probably wanted to nail, or do, I probably did five of them, but I did them well. And I nailed the two most important things. I’m quite prepared to sacrifice the rest to nail the two most important things the boys need at that training on that day. And once that happens, you walk away. You coach completely different. I wish I’d learned that when I was a young coach.

Peter Breen: Yeah. That’s absolutely great advice to have your six, but the two you want to nail is the most important thing. With your coaching, a lot of people going from playing to coaching pretty quickly, and you kind of have a feel for what things were like when you were a player. As you’ve got older and got more experience, how do you stay relevant? How do you stay understanding for what the boys are going through and feeling as you say on the field?

Mike Cron: Well, I think I’ve always had a pretty good rapport with the boys. They’re honest. That’s what I want. I want honesty. I’ll be honest with you. No bullshit and jellybeans is what I tell them. I just turned the light on. Hold on. Yeah, so don’t get no bullshit and jellybeans. Don’t tell me what I want to hear. We haven’t got time for that stuff. Just be honest with me. I’m a big boy. I can take it, you know? But through this honesty and open channeling, and I’ll tell you something about players, and I’m talking about even if you’re just coaching a first 15 or a senior team.

If you ask them what’s the issues here, generally they’ll know. If you allow them, if you go along to it, I get asked to go along to say coach a first 15. And they’ll say, “Oh, we want you to look at the lining.” All right. How many games you had? First thing I ask. “Oh, we’ve had four plus two preseason.” Oh, that’s good. What’s been going well in your line out? They give me. What, anything else? Da, da, da. Oh, that’s really good. What do you think we need to look at to try to help you get a bit better in some of the areas? If you allow them, they’ll tell you, because I used to go in as a young coach and I’d give them my repertoire of line out coaching, or scrum coaching, and I’d be driving home and I’d think, “Shit, I hope that’s what they wanted.” I never asked them.

So, by asking them and allowing them time to have a think, they’ll actually give you the answer. Guarantee it. And then you’ll say, “Right, well, let’s go and work on those two things that you told me.” So, I’m not working taking up time on stuff that they’re already good at. They know the two things we gotta get better at, so we know, now I got it right. Now, you told me A and B we need to work on, have we covered that up? Are you happy with it? Yeah, that’s great. Anything else? No, we’re happy. Done.

Peter Breen: Yeah. One thing that I also picked up from you is comments like my personal view, and for me, and the way that I coach it, those types of comments are always good to set up what you are coaching.

Mike Cron: Yep. And I’m always open to get challenged for the boys. In the right manner. We all treat each other with respect, like when I coach, no matter first 15 or the All Blacks, I call them gentlemen. Over here please, gentlemen. You know? That’s always relevant, polite, clear instructions. And then we get the feedback. The feedback is the goal. To me, why would you do 10 scrums in a row and there’s no feedback? That training.

I know when I first started at the All Blacks, they would collapse a bit their training, because it was a… I don’t know. Whether it was poor technique, or whether or not it was a one upmanship, I don’t know. So, what I did was I said, “We can’t have this.” Because then they… And I said on Saturday, there’s a consequence. There has to be a consequence at training. So, from now on, any collapsed scrum, I think it was Chris Jack was my lock. You count them. And at the end of our scrum session, every forward will line up on the goal line, lying on their stomach, with his elbows out front, and for every collapsed scrum, I’m gonna walk out 10 meters, and the first day they had four collapsed scrums, so I was out 40 meters. I said, “When I blow my whistle, you have to crawl out to me but by only using your elbows. You’re paralyzed from the waist down.”

That took a while, so eventually they all get out to me. I said, “Thank you. End of training.” Follow training we do scrums, I say, “Right. Same rules apply.” All of a sudden, there’s one collapsed scrum. After that, it’s a rarity to have a collapsed scrum. Good technique will help you. You gotta teach some good technique, but also no bailing out. No rolling shoulders. No getting out of… Stay in there. That’s the game. On a Saturday, it can be a penalty, so we can’t have it at training. So, there has to be a consequence, so I think that was a good thing to do, too. Once your players have the right technique, and after that, we have to have a different attitude that we don’t collapse.

Peter Breen: That’s gold. With dealing with the best players in the world, and guys that have been doing it a while, they might have been called onto the All Blacks and have had a full career under their belt, like all skills, there’s different ways to do things. When a player does something in the scrum that is different, that might have a different idea of what works for them, how do you deal with that player?

Mike Cron: No problem. I have no problem with them coming up with ideas for themselves, or for the scrum, and we’ll have a yarn about it. All I say to them is again I go back to the golf analogy, that we’ve got you, it’s all swinging the club pretty good and hitting the ball pretty good here. So, if you’re going to change something in your swing, we’ll have a discussion first, a really clear discussion, and if we think it’s worthwhile between you and I, we’ll give it a wee go, a wee trial at training, and then we’ll have a discussion again. Do we change our swing of our golf club or do we not? But there’s a process.

Peter Breen: Yeah.

Mike Cron: Otherwise, you keep changing, changing, changing, and then you don’t know how to hit the ball. You’ve lost your swing.

Peter Breen: Great example. I’m wondering if there’s any stories or people that stand out as just people that just work, they just have put in more work than other people, which is why they got the results that they got as a player?

Mike Cron: I don’t know about that. You’re talking about older players who have been around, like Tony Woodcock was probably the best loosehead prop in the world in my humble opinion, and late in his career, when you think he’d be just quite happy, he wanted to take things to a new level and particularly in the gym. So, he went to the best lifter back in those days, very dedicated lifter, in Brad Thorn. And said, “Can you be my partner for the year when we go to the gym?”

So, that took him to another level, so there’s different ways of getting more energy out of, or more bang for your buck as a player. That motivated him, because all of a sudden he’s learning, he’s getting better. That’s motivation. So, even for an old war horse like Woody, he was still looking at ways right through to the end. There’s no secret that the great players are still trying, like Richie McCaw in the last training session we did in 2015, before the final, he still come over to have a look at the iPad I was running on a line out to make sure he was doing it right.

147 tests at that stage and one more to go. So, there’s still thirst for getting better. You’ve never arrived. I know people say that, but you gotta believe it. You haven’t arrived. And even when you retire, there’ll still be things that you still want to nail. That’s what you… You gotta have that thirst to get better.

Peter Breen: Absolute gold. And Brad Thorn taking out with Woodcock, what a great guy to be in the gym with.

Mike Cron: And watch. The energy that those two exerted in the gym was wonderful.

Peter Breen: 100%. Keeping things fresh and with a skill like scrummaging, and what a lot of boys would have been under you for a long time. Keeping those things fresh, and ideas, and focuses, how do you go about doing that?

Mike Cron: Well, probably every year, I’ve got a lot more little drills and little tweaks and stuff, you know? That I think’s worthwhile. They’re not bullshit and jellybeans. They are worthwhile. And I use all sorts of apparatus out on the field, from PVC pipes full of water, getting them to do lunges, so it’s all unstable. I get them to do all sorts of stuff like that. I use a lot of harness gear. I use a lot of instability stuff. And you know, a lot of it… That’s quite interesting. When they’re on it, it’s stuff they probably haven’t done before, a lot of it. And it takes them to a new level, because it takes them out of their comfort zone.

So, generally I’m always… I’ve always got… I’ve probably got 100 little drills or activities I could give them. You gotta work out what do we need for this, what we’re trying to achieve. So, in scrummaging, you got your setup, your balance, you’ve got your engage, you got your bind sequence, then you got your engagement, then you got your loading. That’s constant pressure after the engagement. Then you got the shunt when the ball comes in. Then you got your channeling. So, there are all the areas of your building blocks. Then you work out after you’ve had a few games, which one do we need to tidy up on? And all your drills and activities focus in on that area. And you’re tied to that area. And the boys know, because you’ve had a review of it, so they know all the drills we’re doing relate back to what we’re trying to achieve, and then eventually you’ll put it all together.

So, they know we’re not just… We’re not just doing drills here. There’s no place for that.

Peter Breen: You’re clearly so organized in your brain when it comes to the process and the coaching and the field. It’s awesome to hear. I suppose I want to go into now is you preparing for a test match, and probably hear about what you look for in a team’s opposition. Say if you play in the Springboks, what’s your process and viewing them, how they do things, and showing the boys this is what’s coming?

Mike Cron: Yeah, sure. So, in our review on the Monday, I keep that pretty short and sharp, and to the point. Again, I used to have all my clips, like on a Sunday I’d do all my clips. I’d probably in a game now, with the different areas of responsibility I had, I’d do well over 100 clips in a game. But at the end of the day, I might show eight. But you actually have to go through the process of doing your hundred and then sifting it down. Now, out of that eight, how I do it now is at the end of our team review we split backs and forwards. I have my forwards, so I sit down like you and I in a circle here and I say, “Right, how’d we go? Let’s start off on our ball line out.” We’ll have a yarn.

Yeah, right out, and what do we gotta work on? Da, da, da. Da, da, da. Yeah, I got one clip to show you on that. So, I show that clip. And then what about opposition ball line out? Da, da, da. Da, da, da. Okay. What about our scrum ball? Da, da, da. Yeah. Got a couple of clips there. So, I might have eight clips to show them, but if they cover it off, I don’t need to hammer them and show them. They’ve already told me they know that. So, as a young coach, I’d show them come hell or high water, because that’s my presentation. But now, I adjust and adapt. Oh, they’ve told me that. They’ve told me that. So, I only have to show the real critical few.

So, they’re not getting hammered. They know it’s for a point. For a reason. And moving forward. And also, boys, we got South Africa next set, and I want to show you one clip about them. Put it in the front of your brain. That’s what we’re training all week.

Peter Breen: Did you single opposition players out? Especially in the front row?

Mike Cron: Oh yeah, you do a report on all those three, and then I put a… I show their strengths and weaknesses. Every prop has a weakness, a window of opportunity. Everyone.

Peter Breen: Wow. Yeah.

Mike Cron: My job is to identify where that window of opportunity is.

Peter Breen: Can you identify a few of those opportunities, just off the cuff?

Mike Cron: Oh, yeah. Through a process, it could be on the bind, he opens his chest up. Probably on engagement, he angles up too much. There’s a window of opportunity. He gets too long in his leg. That’s his window, just there. You’re only talking split second. That’s where you attack. So, my guys, made out of the same. My job is to make sure that any window of opportunity an opposition has, it’s a very small window. And we keep trying to repair that window and fix it, you know what I mean?

Peter Breen: Yeah.

Mike Cron: But every front rower, I think, no different to a boxer or whatever, there will be some little window where he’s vulnerable. So, I do that now instead of having a meeting and walking through it, the guys are so proficient, I just put it on the team computer. So, I’ve done a little package for you. My little notes about what I’m seeing. You want to know any more, come and see me. You know, because they’re professional and they’re very good. Yeah.

Peter Breen: I’m interested to know about you during a game on the radios within your area. How keen are you to get on the mic? Or are you wanting to leave it to the boys to sort-

Mike Cron: I’m not that happy sending messages out. My job is to give them enough tools in the toolbox to deal with the what ifs out there. So, if there’s been… Say a hooker throws are not straight. He knows he’s throwing, they’re not straight. He will know that he’s taking his front hand off too early. So, he should, through good practice, repair that and fix it for the next one. So, my job is to educate them on the what ifs, and then readily fix it. Identify it and fix it. So, I wouldn’t send out a message, “Keep your front hand on the ball longer.” I would wait till the next line out and generally he’s nailed it. Yeah, good boy. Self corrected.

Peter Breen: And probably my last question with in-game stuff is the halftime, is what does that chat look like?

Mike Cron: Okay, so when the boys come in, their heartbeat’s over 200 beats a minute. They’re gagging. So, I don’t talk to them for 3 minutes. They know that. They go and have a leak. They can go and throw water over their face. They can do what they want. They get in their circle, forwards, backs separate. After about three minutes, you’re noticing that their breathing comes back to normal. They’re just starting to get a bit… You know, edgy on their seat. They’re starting to get a sort of, “Are we ready, are we?” We’re ready. Okay.

So, then they got big ears. They’re listening. And then my job is to go to the leaders. Our ball line out, how we going? Da, da, da, da. Generally, these guys cover off everything that I need covered off. I might have to say one thing. All my job is to make sure. Sam Whitelock, opposition line out, how we going? You know, whoever the scrum captain is, how we going? Boys, there’s one thing I’m seeing at the breakdown. And I’ll give my little sixpence worth about the breakdown. It might be that compared to last week, we’re just a fraction slower getting off the ground and moving that first five meters than we were last week. Am I right or am I wrong? They say, “No, no. Shit, you’re right, Cron. Righto.”

So, that’s the fact that’s sticking up. Let’s just bounce a bit quicker, boys and get our ass moving. Thank you. And we’re gone.

Peter Breen: Yeah. Yeah. My next question, you’ve had to deal with head coaches and a lot of head coaches may have been backs, or not experienced the front row, or ever been in a scrum. What advice should a head coach… How much knowledge do they need to know about a scrum and what’s going on, and what would you suggest for them to do?

Mike Cron: Okay. If you’re a head coach, I think it’d be handy to have a good bit of knowledge about the scrum. To the fact that you can walk along and watch a session, a scrum session, and after training over a cup of coffee, you can actually ask the scrum coach a couple of relevant questions, because you got enough knowledge to ask those questions. But why was that guy doing this? Or what happened there, because this is what I saw. So, you give them enough knowledge to have the ability to ask questions. Okay?

Now, Steve Hansen was a midfield back and he knows a heck of a lot about scrummaging. Over the years we’ve been together, since ’98, he can come along. If he stands next to my scrum session, I’ll tell him, “You stand around the back and just keep an eye on those two locks’ feet for me, and just come back and talk to me if there’s a problem.” So, I know that’s been looked after. I just look after this other area. So, that’s how coaches should help each other, and Steve’s got enough knowledge, and I think if I’m gonna be a head coach, you need to have a pretty good knowledge over everything.

Peter Breen: Yeah. Good advice. This is great, man. I’m loving it. A few more. A few more areas to talk about. The mental game, so getting guys prepared for that, and I had Kees Meeuws on the podcast and I said to him, “You know, Kees, a kicker can have a bad day, where he just can’t kick the ball straight. When it comes to a front rower, how does form come and go and rhythm come and go?” So, I guess that’s the start of the question, but also mentally preparing a guy to take on the responsibilities. How do you go about that?

Mike Cron: Well, I think 50% is confidence and 50% is technique. If they’re only 90% committed to the task of shoving their head into a dark cave with one and a half ton going through their ass, we got a problem. So, I need them confident. That’s the first thing. So, through good technique and through preparation, I get them… Hopefully they’re confident to go out there and do the task at hand. And then roll with the punches that come. That they’re capable, you know what I mean?

And so, really from Thursday afternoon after training, that’s… She’s all yours. I won’t interfere with you; you know what I mean? You just keep yourself ready. We’re right. We’re fine. You’ll be fine. So, getting the confidence through good coaching, good communication, good feedback, so they’re confident enough to go out there and do the task at hand, and I think don’t underestimate that confidence. And the other thing is that I always say, like tight-head props, you’re lucky to win 50% of the hits. The great props, it’s what you do after it. What you do when you don’t wen the hit. They’re the great props. So, it’s not a problem, because you know it’s gonna happen.

But you know, and you’ve trained it to get out of jail and to get back into a strong position, so we can deal with it. We can handle it. We’ve trained it. Whereas some guys, if they don’t get everything right, 100% right, the wheels fall off.

Peter Breen: Keeping yourself sharp. Couple more to go. So, what do you do at the moment to keep yourself on, to keep yourself learning on the daily? What’s kind of your process at the moment?

Mike Cron: Well, I’m doing, I’m trying to restrict myself to just coach three days a week. So, I’m still doing first 15s, and club sides, and I’m doing Zooms for World Rugby. I’m doing Zooms for other areas, other outfits. I decided in my semi-retired state I’m gonna… In a couple of weeks time, I’ve got a little website that will come up. In my whole career, I’ve never, ever been on Facebook, LinkedIn, nothing. I just hide under the radar. You know what I mean? No one can get hold of me.

It’s been good. So, now that I’m not involved with the All Blacks and I have a bit of spare time, semi-retired, and I thought, “Well,” and with the way the world is, and I’m doing a lot of Zooms. Well, bugger it, I’ll get on there, get them a website. If they want to touch base, send me footage of what their boys are doing, have a discussion about what I’ve learned as a coach over the years, the pitfalls, the what ifs, the mistakes you’ve made, you know what I mean? If they want to do that, great. If they don’t, no problem.

Peter Breen: Interesting. I want to touch on that Zoom, sorry, with World Rugby, with what you’ve been doing with them. What’s kind of the job in the moment or what are you focusing on?

Mike Cron: Yeah. We did the… Last week, I did three one hour sessions for… They divided the world into three, so for tier two coaches, all the tier two coaches. So, I did that last week, and this week I got two more to do Thursday night, Friday, for the ladies. I’m not sure if that’s tier… I presume tier one.

Peter Breen: Oh, fantastic. And I suppose that website’s going to be really exciting. I would encourage everyone to check that out, and I know that you can talk scrum for days. Just before we finish up, I want to touch on those other areas that you were doing with the All Blacks, so the breakdown and the line out. So, I suppose how did you find that from having one area, to now all of a sudden having a bigger responsibility and managing all that? Did you sort of… How’d you feel about that when you first got rolling?

Mike Cron: Well, when I was just a scrum coach, you still had a little bit of input in all the areas. We all do as coaches. And that’s great. But all the sudden, you get given the task that you’re the boss of this area. All of a sudden, the rubber meets the road there, and so I went into it like again, analyzed the hell out of it, find out what’s the underlying key components to everything. So, you break down ball into contact. Give me all… and I’ve analyzed the hell out of it. And then come up with different coaching methods, different drills to do for the boys to help them. Speed of thought. Take them through how quick can you… Your speed of thought from a changing pitcher as a support player to a clean outer. How quick can you change, can identify that picture’s changed, and how quick can you react?

All that sort of stuff. I love that sort of shit, you know? And line outs, I really enjoyed educating the boys on how to jump faster, and I tell them those little things that jump on and measure all sorts of… And I really enjoyed all sorts of activities that we brought to primer drills, with medicine balls, and bungee bands, and overspeed training, and all that sort of stuff. I really enjoyed that. Yeah. Really opened my mind up.

Peter Breen: Who were some of those leaders in the forward packs that you’ve really enjoyed working with when it come to the detail and the knowledge of how you guys were going to be successful at lineout time?

Mike Cron: Well, over the years I had some really good lineout exponents. You know, Chris Jack way back, but since I took over the lineouts, I’ll obviously say Whitelock has been there right through. Rio’s a really smart man on lineouts. That… Those two jump to mind. They’re really smart boys. And we come up with you look at… I’d look after technical side, to make sure all the technical part of the lineout’s working. They looked after the lineout options, and all that sort of stuff. And I just made sure we got enough time off the head coach to do all we had to do, and then all my task was was watching all the technical side of it and nipping that in the bud if it ever got off track.

Peter Breen: Yeah.

Mike Cron: So, I didn’t have to worry about what’s this call, what’s that, what’s that, I’m just looking at jump first, lift second, technique of the jump, technique of the lift, you know? All that part of it. So, they didn’t have to worry about that, because they’re involved in the lineout. They knew I was looking after that. And so, we come up with some… I thought a really good balance. I knew my role and they had much… They’re the guys out there, so they were running it as far as on the paddock and most trainings. All I’m doing is making sure that we never, ever train poor technique.

Peter Breen: Yeah. That’s major. And having the eye for that detail. I remember Scott Robinson mentioned about keeping your eye and just being aware of being able to see things. Is that something you’ve experienced, as well, as with your coaching? You kind of go through good form and need to clean up things?

Mike Cron: Yeah. And also, when your coach… Scotty, because he’s a had coach, he can walk around and observe things. He actually sees a lot more than the guy coaching it.

Peter Breen: Yeah.

Mike Cron: Because Scotty, as a head coach, he’s got a good eye for everything. That’s what we were talking before about. Just having a bit of knowledge about everything, so Scotty can stand back and observe without coaching, but he’ll see a lot more quite often than the guy running a session on something. When I coach, I reckon I wouldn’t see more than 40%.

Peter Breen: Interesting.

Mike Cron: So, it defies logic to me, like say you’re a defense coach and you’re running a D session at training, you’re out there, and you’re blowing your whistle, and you’re running your defense session. The other three coaches stay on the sideline just having a chat. What a waste of resources. For me, I’d have one guy, say your task, we’re starting to crab a bit on D and the refs are getting strict on it. Can you just walk along the sideline in line with them. Every time someone crabs and jumps the gun, just put your hand up, so I can see your hand go up. So, you give me feedback that we’re crabbing.

The other coach, can you hop around and behind the attack and just watch my first two defenders, to make sure they’re doing this role and this role? Every time they’re not, put your hand up. So, all of a sudden I’ve given them two clear tasks. I’m running the drill. I don’t have to worry about those, that part of the skill, because it’s being looked after by two other coaches. And just by them putting their hand up, I can bring the boys in and say, “Boys, we’re jumping the gun far too much here. Take another meter.” Or whatever. So, that’s how you can utilize other resources.

Peter Breen: Yeah. Sharing a load of that coaching’s great. And one question to follow up on that. With the coaching there was, with the All Blacks, it was quite consistent for long periods of time. How did you guys keep each other accountable and sort of call each other out if things weren’t going well? Did you have those hard conversations often?

Mike Cron: Two things. Brutal honesty and confronting inconvenient facts.

Peter Breen: Love those two.

Mike Cron: So, if you can actually do that in your environment, it’s a healthy environment. And the only reason you’re doing it to me or I’m doing it to you is because we care about the organization. The organization’s bigger than you or I, so if I didn’t care for the organization, I’d let it go, or you’d let it go. But yeah, so brutal honesty, deal with inconvenient facts. And we can do that for the players and the management. So, you’re at the sharp end of a stick here and that’s what comes with the territory. If you don’t, things slide.

Peter Breen: Yeah.

Mike Cron: You know? If I coach… I’ll tell you a true story on that. When I was a young coach on the All Blacks side, we all go back and have a coffee after training, and Gilbert Enoka quite often does a lot of filming for me. He’s a mental skills coach. And he said to me, “Geez, I really love the questions you asked your players today.” I said, “Oh, it’s good, Gilbert.” He said, “No, no, no. I really mean that. Your questions were outstanding.” My chest goes out and I’m… You know, I said, “Well, that’s bloody good of you, Bert.” He said, “You know who answered most of your questions?” I go, “Oh, it was Richie McCaw. Was it Anton Oliver?” He said, “You did. Do you know why you did?”

I said, “No.” He said, “Young coaches are scared of silence.” Some of the best advice I’ve ever been given. So, that’s the sort of thing that you need. Otherwise, I would have carried on the way I carry on. So, he nipped that in the bud in the first few weeks that I was coaching the All Blacks. So, through that, I’m not scared of silence when I’m coaching.

Peter Breen: What a great way to do it with a little bit of humor, as well, but so much punch behind it.

Mike Cron: It’s gold for me as a young coach. It was gold.

Peter Breen: Awesome. This has been great, Mike. Thanks so much for being generous with your time, and your knowledge, and your stories. I suppose just to finish this, it must be great having Dan getting into… Your boy, Dan, getting into coaching now, and doing such a great, great job.

Mike Cron: Yeah. Yeah. Wonderful. I was talking to him today. We talk probably every day, every second day. And it’s great. He’s 10 years at the Hurricanes now, and you know, and he’s been to three World Cups with Samoa and Tonga. He’s very experienced for a young man, so he’s got a good future, you know? He’s a really good coach. Yeah. Really good coach now. And I’m looking forward to… It’s been great, like after every All Black test, I ring him no matter where I am in the world. All Black games, so I was there 217 games, and so I’d ring him after every game and have a debrief. Don’t matter if it’s 3:00 in the morning back in New Zealand or whatever.

I think we only missed each other about six time through him flying, or he might have been out late or something. Yeah, and then after all his Hurricane games, he rings me.

Peter Breen: Yeah.

Mike Cron: Great father-son sort of stuff.

Peter Breen: Why did you find that so valuable and important, to make that phone call after the game?

Mike Cron: Well, I’m really close with him. And he’s smart. You know, I love hearing him. He’s so… 3:00, 4:00 in the morning, he’s just full of knowledge and he wants to tell you all about it. And I’m standing up in the middle of the paddock trying to listen and have a yarn, and we talk for about 10, 15 minutes. And he goes through the game, he’s got a really great analytical mind, and I remember I’d walk back in the shed and Wayne Smith would say, “What did Dan say?” He’d want to know what Daniel said, you know?

So, it’s just a great thing, a great tradition, great father-son thing. And generally, he was right. And yeah, it’s just bloody great. I’m very lucky.

Peter Breen: Yeah. No, that’s special. Awesome, Mike. Hey, thanks very much for that. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed that hour and chatting through that stuff. I know people have got a lot of value out of it and looking forward to seeing that website come alive, and your knowledge and your career coming through. So, thanks for your time.

Mike Cron: You’re most welcome, Pete. See you later.

Peter Breen: Awesome. Talk soon.

Mike Cron: Bye, mate.

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