This great game of Rugby Union is full of amazing people. Happiness is Egg Shaped is extremely lucky that they all agree… Happiness is Egg Shaped! Damian McGrath has been a Twitter follower from the beginning and we are grateful that he filled his 13 hour flight from Cape Town to Canada after the 7s to give us some responses to our questions. This is one of the most enlightening interviews yet, Damian is a class act with an unrivaled depth of knowledge and experience at various levels of the game, in different countries and across both codes.
Where did it all start?
I was born in Bradford in Yorkshire. I played professional Rugby League for Batley and Swinton. I was an education graduate and taught for several years in Leeds. I loved all sports but was a real ‘jack of all trades – master of none’! I was always fascinated by what it was that made the best players the best and that curiosity and my teaching background made the step into coaching an obvious one. I became player coach for the reserves at Batley and we had immediate championship success. This led to me being recommended to Leeds Rhinos Rugby League who were looking for young coach to head up their new Academy programme. In 1989 I was lucky enough to be offered the chance to go full time for the Rhinos as a Coach/Development officer. This was way before it was the norm and I was one of only a handful of full time coaches. It was a gamble to leave the security of teaching but working in sport, as a job, was too good to miss. We had great success at Leeds winning Academy and Reserve titles. I was promoted to 1st team assistant coach and we won the Challenge Cup at Wembley and appeared in the Grand Final. I coached the Great Britain Academy team, Great Britain U21’s and was the assistant coach for England at the 2000 RL
World Cup. Clive Woodward offered me the opportunity to cross codes in 2001. I was skills and defence coach for England 7’s and did the same role for England A. I was extremely fortunate to spend 2 years as 1st team skills coach at Leicester Tigers. This coincided with Leicester’s golden period and I had the chance to work with Dean Richards, John Wells and an amazing squad of world-class international stars (and World Cup winners). Over the period of 2001 to 2006 I was part of the coaching set up for England 7’s, England A, England U19’s and the England senior team on one occasion. I then spent 3 years as skills and defence coach for the Spanish RU National team, as they moved into the World top 20 rankings, before returning to RL as Head of Performance at Huddersfield Giants. In 2011 the Welsh RU appointed me Head of Rugby of the newly formed North Wales Region (RGC). After guiding them into the Welsh Championship I returned to assist Simon Amor with England 7’s. From there onto Samoa as Head Coach of their 7’s team before coming to my present role of Head of the Canadian Men’s 7’s programme.
You have a breadth of experience like very few in the game. How has that experience shaped the coach you are today?
Without a doubt, you are shaped by your experiences. You often see young players being successful at a tender age. However, coaching is very much a “time served” profession. You have to live through ups and downs and watch from close quarters how experienced practitioners deal (or fail to deal) with success and failure. The top coaches use all their man management and organisational skills, as well as a practiced eye, to do the right thing at the right time. I have been very fortunate to work with and alongside some of the best coaches and players in both codes. I count myself very lucky to have talked to and listened to a veritable ‘who’s who’ of the rugby world and constantly recall the one thing they all had in common – looking to improve or learn all the time!
You moved from League to Union, not many go the other way. What challenges did you face?
Many more than people imagine. When I moved in 2001 it was not a common occurrence. I quickly learned that the only thing really in common between the codes was the shape of the ball. I had to adapt to the nuances of the game and the approach of the players. There was a still a degree of ‘us and them’ between the two codes so I had to work hard to prove myself and my credibility. It’s hard to believe how things have changed in a relatively short time, but back then professionalism was quite new to players and coaches alike. Coming from Rugby League which was far more advanced in that respect meant that managing people and their expectations was a big challenge.
Who has influenced you the most in your life?
My parents are my biggest influence. They shape your whole being, they give you standards and mould your outlook. I am very lucky I was brought up in a close, supportive family that encouraged us to follow our interests. A love of all things sport rubbed off on my two sisters, my two brothers and me. My youngest brother Anthony played Test and One-Day cricket for England as well as captaining Yorkshire CC. He is currently coaching Essex in the County Championship so Mum and Dad certainly have plenty to keep them occupied.
What is your coaching philosophy?
“When all is equal, skill is king” is a mantra I’ve had since my early foray into coaching. I’ve always believed that when everybody is as strong and mentally resilient as each other then skill is the difference. The best players do the simple things very well in a consistent manner. So, I take a leaf out of Leonardo Da Vinci’s book and will always say, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”
You have coached in different countries. What makes countries rugby style unique? Do you think nations are losing their identity and becoming too similar?
This is a really good question. As countries are now much more open to appointing overseas coaches there is always the chance that national teams can be too similar. I think the best coaches are the ones who harness the unique traits of a nation and add a little structure as applicable. Ben Ryan and Fiji is a classic example of that. From my own perspective that is certainly true. In Spain, the lack of size but wonderful balance, agility and hand eye coordination of the players lead to a different approach to England’s power and physicality. Samoan’s love flair but relish the high tempo collisions, the challenge is to keep those strengths whilst improving game management.
What is the best advice you have ever received?
“Believe in yourself and have the courage of your convictions”.
As a player, someone who had a big impact on me was a coach called Paul Daley. He told me as I began my fledgling coaching career – “don’t listen to the people in the stands or you’ll end up sat next to them”, which echoes what I said above.
You have taken chances and had to deal with setbacks to reach this point, how has applying a Growth Mindset helped you achieve?
Self-belief in a profession, where everyone you meet is an expert, is a must have. Every poor result opens you up to criticism from experts and armchair fans alike. I am always looking to learn and love observing other coaches at work. To improve your players, you have to challenge them. To improve as a coach and as a person you have to challenge yourself. I have a personal list of 12 points that I take into every job which I rely on to underpin all I do.
What excites you about your role?
The challenge. Canada are a Tier two rugby nation trying to improve their standing in world rugby. It’s a chance to build a successful 7’s programme from almost scratch. We must identify and coach players from across a huge country where rugby barely registers on the public’s consciousness.
What are your ambitions in your current role?
Our immediate aim is to secure our place in the World Series. I want to establish a strong squad with depth to compete in the knockout stages of major competitions. To do that we have to identify young players who can challenge for places in the Senior team. Ultimately, we are building towards Tokyo 2020.
What do you see as your biggest success in rugby?
Given the fickle nature of professional sport, I think being continuously in work at the top level for 27 years is a pretty good achievement.
Eggs – scrambled, poached or boiled?
Is your Happiness is Egg Shaped?
THANK YOU DAMIAN, all the best for the future. If the past is anything to go by, there is no doubt that Damian will make a BIG impression on Canadian Rugby.
Happiness is Egg Shaped