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Big Jim meets Joe Shaw

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From coaching in Hong Kong to Saracens and what Mark McCall's really like – ‘Big Jim’s Big Interview’ with Joe Shaw

It’s here. The much-anticipated return of “Big Jim’s Big Interview”, which sees our man sit down with Saracens skills and attack coach Joe Shaw. One of the unheralded masterminds behind the club’s dominance of English rugby in recent years, Shaw talks to us about his formative coaching experience in Hong Kong, how a move to Saracens came about and what he looks for in the players under his guidance.

Jim Hamilton: Right, Shawsy, we’ve obviously been mates a long, long time, played against each other plenty of times…how old are you now? Can you just confirm for the tape?

Joe Shaw: I just turned 38.

JH: So, 38. You’re a very young coach by the standards of the professional game. How do you find being a young coach? I’d say you’re maybe the youngest doing the job you’re doing at a club like Saracens, a successful team, so do you feel like a young coach or not? I mean, you look a lot older than you are…

JS: Thanks, mate. I don’t really, because I think when you’re in an environment like Saracens, it’s about how well you can do your job and I turned up in 2012, so it’s been a decent stint there. You know, [Alex] Sanderson is just a bit older than me and Gussy [Paul Gustard] who was there at the time is just a few years older than me and Kev Sorrell, too, so it was fine settling in. I think what also helped was the fact that I’d coached from the age of 20, so when I was playing, I also always had two teams at any one time to coach, which filled up my week. They were men’s teams, too, so it was always people older than me, which some people can find uncomfortable at times, but because I coached for so long before I came to Sarries, I was kind of used to different situations and being a youngster didn’t really affect me that much.

JH: You first coached at Newcastle, but you also went to Hong Kong. How did you find that as a learning experience?

JS: I loved it. When it came to an end at Newcastle, there were a couple of options to stay in England and probably work in an academy then and there, but I’ve always been someone who has had a plan and I wanted to take certain steps. Every coach’s journey is different to get to where they want to be and the opportunity that I got to go to Hong Kong meant that I could get away from the Premiership, I wouldn’t have to see rugby every weekend that was going on in England, I could go away and start again with my wife Emily, because we had just recently got married. What they had over there in Hong Kong was an unbelievable set-up to develop coaches and get to the real nitty gritty, integral parts of coaching. Why, as a coach, do you do certain things? How do people really learn? I had two really great mentors in Dai Rees and Lee Jones, who spent timeless hours with myself and your other mate, Andy Hall, Sam Pinder…we were all out there. I think that kind of education that we got for three years put me in a really good place for when I came back. When the lads want to become coaches, sometimes they think it’s just going to happen. I’ve been a good player, I’m going to be a good coach, I like coaching, I want to stay in rugby…whatever it is that makes you want to be a coach, but sometimes you get thrown in and you don’t understand just how hard things are, or that it’s not all about rugby and that there are lots of components that go with coaching. I think I was quite lucky that in Hong Kong, I had the time and the understanding to really work out what those extra bits and pieces were.

JH: You mentioned the transition there and there’s a lot of talk about it – obviously I’m in that period now – in your mid 30’s. How did you find that? Guys we have played with, guys we have played against, some of them do really struggle. Now I’m in this transition, I can understand why, but how did you find that transition and players around you, who you have worked with or played with?

JS: For myself, I was ok because I was very prepared. I see lads now coming out of rugby and there’s a big difference between the ones that have really prepared for when this dream life comes to an end and lads that just kind of put it on the backburner because they don’t want to believe it’s coming. Unfortunately, it comes for everyone, it’s just about how long can you stay in there for, really. Whatever happens, it’s going to be hard. The emotional side of things, because you’re no longer with your best mates in a changing room, you don’t have schedules, you know, for 10 or 12 years of your life, you’re told where to be at different times and things are done for you. Your washing is there for you when you come to work, you spend all day with your mates and then you go for coffee, you’re surrounded by people that you love and a supportive organisation, so that you can do your job to the best that you can possibly do it. Obviously, there’s the financial side, too. You’ve probably gone from being on a salary that was a lot higher than the mates you’ve grown up with outside of rugby and you’ve lived your life on a reasonable amount of money. Then you go into the real world all of a sudden and you’re in your 30’s and you’re learning a new trade again. Unless you’re very lucky, you’re not going to be on that same kind of salary, which to a lot of lads means you’re not going to live the same kind of lifestyle. That can be very difficult, and you can understand why. Those kinds of things put a great strain on people and you’ve mentioned the mental health side. Some manage to get through it and some manage to get the right help, but unfortunately it can catch up with others.

Joe Shaw playing for Newcastle Falcons against Saracens in a Premiership match in 2005. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

JH: Definitely. You spoke about being in Hong Kong and the opportunity you had there, so how did the Saracens opportunity come around? When you came to Saracens, did you realise there was going to be as much success as there has been? I don’t want to sound too humble, but obviously I was there during the glory days, but there was a lot of building in the background before that. How did that come about?

JS: Do you know what? There was quite a lot of luck, as I was really happy out in Hong Kong and we had set up a great life for ourselves. Then the Asia Pacific Barbarians were going to play a game against Saracens and Saracens brought over a team full of people I knew. Alex Sanderson, who I’m obviously coaching with now, he came over, my great friend Hugh Vyvyan was over, and we were all just in the hotel having a drink and the news came out that one of the coaches was leaving and going off to England and that Kev Sorrell was going to move up from the academy to the senior team. They were looking for an academy coach and Vyv gave Edward Griffiths a call, who was in charge at the time, introduced me and said, “why don’t you talk to Joe?” I got an interview with Mark McCall and Mike Hynard. Then I had another interview on Skype and literally two weeks later I got the job. Six weeks after that and I was back in England, so it was all
very fast. It was difficult, too, because I actually had a two-week-old baby at the time, so to leave Hong Kong and to initially leave Em there was hard, but it was the right decision in the end.

JH: It definitely was. A few questions people would be interested to know about. They don’t have to be too long, Shawsy, they can be quite quick ones. Mark McCall, everyone speaks about him but not a lot of people know him, can you just tell me in terms of a mentor and a guy heading up the Saracens team, what’s he like to work for? What makes him so special?

JS: The first thing that jumps out is just that he cares about everybody and he’s really looked out for me during the time that I have been here. He’s second to none. He doesn’t want or like the spotlight, he just wants to get better himself all the time and for us to push forward. He’s also the most competitive man I have ever met in my life. You see him in interviews and he’s a quiet and humble bloke, but he’s unbelievably competitive. We play staff football and Ian Peel played once and then stopped playing because Smally got into him so much about his poor work rate!

JH: Fitness, that is. Not work rate.

JS: He heads up this organisation for us coaches, the players, the backroom staff, everybody. And he’s a fair man, too, which is one of the things that makes it such an enjoyable place to go to.

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JH: Brilliant. Some quickfire questions now. What does Joe Shaw look for in a player, if you were to sign one?

JS: First thing I’d look at is what are they going to add? What are they going to add to our team, what are they going to add to our organisation? Have they got something that we are going to greatly benefit from by them coming in? The second thing would be their drive, their ambition. They’re obviously going to be a pretty good player if they’re going to be coming to a top-level team, but what’s their drive like? Are they trying to get better every single day? Do they want to see how far they can push their potential? Lastly, what kind of bloke are they? You can be the greatest player in the world but if you’re not a good bloke, it just makes it hard work to play with and to coach and you never really fulfil your potential as a person. I think we have a responsibility as coaches to not only make people the best players they can possibly be and achieve the goals that they have, like being an international or being a British and Irish Lion, but also to be good blokes, good husbands or boyfriends. I think that’s the responsibility of coaches to push that, too.

JH: That’s a great answer. Another one. What do you think separates a world class player from a good player?

JS: Again, it’s reasonably simple for me. I think nowadays, you have to be physically and athletically in the top couple of per cent in the game. It is just a given, to be able to do what the game demands of you. In terms of the difference between world class and the rest, I think it’s different for various positions, but ultimately, it’s the people that can make the right decisions and good decisions under the most intense pressure, at the highest level of the game and they need to get those decisions right constantly and consistently. If you have a player that can do that, they are the kind of people that are leading the way in the game.

JH: So that was the difference between me and Maro [Itoje] then, I take it, when you were having the selection meetings? I know you were backing me, Shawsy, I know you were.

JS: Jim, you’re one of those people who mocks yourself, but you were very, very, very good for us. What you did as a player and what you won, was down to hard work and although you mock
yourself, you’re very well respected at Saracens for what you did for us.

JH: Shawsy, I appreciate that. The people at the top of the game, coaches like yourself, who are always looking to evolve, are you looking at New Zealand and thinking what are they doing? I know you guys do that, but what I found really interesting with yourself, DV [Dan Vickers] and Kev [Sorrell] is that you actually looked at other teams, like Harlequins for example. I remember there was something that Bedford did in a game that we looked at and added into our game, and it’s true in me saying that, right? You don’t just look at New Zealand and England and these internationals, you actually look at other teams and look for ways to improve at Saracens?

JS: You’re absolutely right. The game is very simple, really, when you look at it. What separates the best teams is that they just do the basic things better than anyone else. If you’re looking to do something, it’s usually around where your team is going. You will have an idea of where your team is going and evolving to. You can take inspiration and ideas from basketball, from all different types of sport and all different types of teams. The amount of times I have just been watching local rugby and somebody has done something and it’s like, well, that can easily be put into our team, so it’s about having an open mind. When we went to New Zealand, we got some great ideas, but then we went up to Wigan and got some great ideas from there, too.
When it comes to coaching, you just have to understand that nobody knows it all and as soon as you think you know it all, you just start dying. You’ve got to be open-minded, to listen to people, to watch how others do it and to have an appreciation for what people are really good at. I think the organisation that I’m at are good at that, humble enough to say “wow, look at how those guys do that” and then add it to our game.

JH: And lastly, this week Matty O’Connor got sacked. Eddie Jones got interviewed about it and Eddie said he worries for the young coaches that are aspiring to coach, but how do you feel about that, being a young coach in a successful team? What would your advice be to up-and-coming young coaches?

JS: I don’t know what happened at Leicester, having not been in that environment, but what I can tell you about is the Saracens environment. For me, if you want to coach, it’s because you love the sport, you love how the game is played and if you’re lucky enough to be in an organisation that you care about, you bounce into work. I remember being told that in the world, just 12% of people love going to work every day and then I look around the club at Saracens and it’s in people’s beings, their skin, they want to be there. They get to the morning and they bounce to get to work and we all get on. If you want to coach and you’re that passionate about it and you find an organisation that shares the same kind of values as yourself, then you’ve got to work towards it. The things you get back from the game are pretty amazing and I’m very lucky and blessed to be at an organisation where everyone feels the same, from the players to the backroom staff. We all get on, we all care about the club and what that means is, if you’ve got people like that, who enjoy being there, then you can achieve, push forward and be successful.
The most important thing is that you’ve got to be happy. You’ve got to love doing what you do. That’s what I’d say is the most important thing for any up-and-coming coach. Don’t be scared about the longevity of it. You can be sacked in any kind of job or a job comes to an end, but the majority of time you will be going to work and loving it, rather than being in a career for 50 years – we’re not here for very long – where you get up and hate going to work every day. What kind of a life is that? What a waste of a life. Go out there, achieve your goals and work hard to get them. If you love coaching and don’t try to progress to whatever level you want to get to, I think you’ll look back and regret it in later life. You can’t have any regrets in that department, life’s too short’

JH: Shawsy, all class, thanks mate.

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From coaching in Hong Kong to Saracens and what Mark McCall's really like – ‘Big Jim’s Big Interview’ with Joe Shaw