Rugby World Cup: More than tactics, top coaches bring culture of belief and togetherness

Straight-talking Vern Cotter has transformed Scotland from wooden spoonists to Rugby World Cup quarter-finalists in less than a year.
Straight-talking Vern Cotter has transformed Scotland from wooden spoonists to Rugby World Cup quarter-finalists in less than a year. PHOTO: ACTION IMAGES/REUTERS

In the blink of an eye, we have come to the business end of what has been a very entertaining Rugby World Cup 2015, filled with shocks, exits and, of course, feel-good stories.

We bid farewell to some of the real entertainers and stories of this RWC 2015, but there is the more important business of winning the trophy.

The quarter-finals will be split over two days in two locations. South Africa face Wales in Twickenham (FOX Sports 2, 17 Oct, 10.45pm), France vs New Zealand in Cardiff (FOX Sports 2, 18 Oct, 2.45am), Ireland take on Argentina in Wales (FOX Sports 2, 18 Oct, 7.45pm) and finally, the Australians will take their good form on to face Scotland in Twickenham (FOX Sports 2, 18 Oct, 10.45pm).

The players are the ones that will get the glory when the confetti drops on Oct 31 at Twickenham Stadium, no matter which nation it is that holds aloft the Webb Ellis Cup. The coaches on the other hand, will stand in the background and reflect on a job well-done.

The good ones hardly want the limelight. Steve Hansen of New Zealand is comfortable in front of the media, but only if it seems he is comfortable with an imaginary gun to his head while he talks to them.

Coaching in professional sport is a totally different animal. Yet, with rugby - a seemingly young sport in the age of professionalism - coaches seem to have a mix of the old world romantics that the game prides itself on and the reality that wins matter most.

The revolving door of coaches, which seem to be a hallmark of in other sports, does not spin as viciously in rugby. Warren Gatland, the Kiwi coaching Wales, has been doing so for eight years. Steve Hansen has been with the All Blacks since 2004, seven years as assistant coach and the last three as head coach.

These coaches have shown that building a winning culture takes time, and a relationship with your key players to believe in your game plan. Ask Richie McCaw and Sam Warburton, the New Zealand and Wales captains respectively, on how much they trust their head coach and backroom staff.

There are exceptions to the rule though. Vern Cotter of Scotland and Michael Cheika of Australia have been helming their respective teams for little over a year. Cheika has spearheaded a revolution which has seen the Wallabies go from a team yearning for its glory days of two World Cups to one that is on the cusp of a third one.

Cotter, is a straight-talking Kiwi who has transformed the Scots from wooden spoonists to RWC 2015 quarter-finalists in less than a year with a blend of rugby that is more Scottish Highlands than South Island.

So what has set these coaches apart and what has masterminded the change? Well, certainly their resumes and vast coaching experience have helped.

Cheika has won everything from an Australian Club Championship, a European Championship, a French league championship and a Super Rugby trophy since he hung up his boots as an uncompromising and ravaging number eight.

Cotter's journey has been the same, but your resume is only as good as you make it.

Renowned American football coach Don Shula, who holds the most wins in the sport, once said that "the biggest problem with most leaders of today is that they don't stand for anything". That cannot be said for all the coaches named - least of all Cheika and Cotter.

They are known more for the transformation of their teams, for putting in a culture of belief and togetherness that shows off the field and even so on it. Shula was further quoted as saying that "convictions provide direction. If you don't stand for something, you fall for everything".

Australia's performance against Wales with two men down in their last pool game was admirable, especially given their play just 12 months before. Fitting for a rallying call that has been coined for Australia by the coach himself: #strongerasone.

Coaching a rugby team is no easy task. Anyone who has coached at any level in any team sport will be the first to admit it. To succeed, I believe you need to have equal-parts passion for the job as you do for the technical aspects of the game.

Gartland is not a born-and-bred Welshman, but his passion for the team, and for his players, can lead many to mistake him as a Welsh Dragon. His wry smile and talk of "us as Wales" show that it's more than just a good-paying job.

When I started playing aged 13 for St. Andrew's School, all my coaches were volunteers. They were either teachers who stayed back to coach, or ex-national players with day jobs who made time to come back and coach us.

It did not don on me at the time that these men all had other things that they could have been doing, but decided to spend their afternoons with a bunch of noisy boys on the rugby pitch. Those early coaches moulded my character, and my belief that passion alone can take you so far, but without passion, it becomes too difficult.

A coach imparts lessons to young players. The task is pretty challenging when it comes to older players and men. What makes the difference? Well, ask Don Shula.

stsports@sph.com.sg

Note: Jonathan Leow, 35, was a Singapore national rugby player and previously coached the national Under-19 team. He also played for the University of Sydney and in the lower divisions in New Zealand. He is currently the vice-president of the Singapore Rugby Union and the organising committee chairman of the Singapore Cricket Club International Rugby Sevens.