Preparations in Wales have stepped up a gear ahead of the new PRO14 season. The Blues, Dragons and Ospreys were all in pre-season action this weekend, while Scarlets fans will get a glimpse of the region’s new away kit at a launch event in Aberystwyth on Monday.
It promises to be an exciting campaign on the pitch as several high-profile players – Ross Moriarty, George North and Scott Williams among them – adapt to new surroundings, and the Blues get used to life without either Sam Warburton or Danny Wilson.
But even without a competitive ball being kicked or ruck hit in anger, this campaign is already an historic one. For the first time since regional rugby was introduced in 2003, none of Wales’ four professional teams have a homegrown head coach leading them into the season.
In those 15 years the four regions, and the defunct Celtic Warriors, have employed just eight head coaches born outside of Wales between them. So, does the fact that four are in situ today suggest a more proactive, open approach to recruitment or does it hint at a decline in coaching standards in the country?
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The Blues, certainly, scoured far and wide for Wilson’s successor but having tempted John Mulvihill to swap life in the Japanese second tier for the Arms Park hot seat, his appointment was met with a lukewarm approach by some.
Shane Williams, writing in his column for The Rugby Paper in March, pondered what it said about how the country’s coaches are viewed in the modern age. “Welsh coaching used to be the envy of the world,” he wrote. “Now they are a rare species at the top end of the game.”
One former player who RugbyPass spoke to echoed those thoughts as he insisted the regions needed to have “more respect for the Welsh coaches that are coming through”.
Of course, there are many fine Welsh coaches working in professional rugby. Wilson had no trouble finding work after leaving Cardiff, signing a deal with Wasps only to extricate himself from that contract once Scotland came knocking.
Steve Tandy has spent time with the Waratahs in Super Rugby since departing the Ospreys in January, while Stephen Jones and Jonathan Humphreys have burgeoning reputations, and Dai Young has done an outstanding job at Wasps.
It is telling, however, that when arriving at the Blues in June, Mulvihill stated that it was his duty to develop the coaches, not just players, on the region’s books. Jason Strange and Tom Smith have both been brought on board following consultation with the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU).
The Blues and WRU will hope that when Mulvihill’s time at the Arms Park comes to an end one of Strange, Smith or Duane Goodfield will be ready to take the reigns themselves.
Coaching development has been identified as a key priority for the WRU, which coaxed former Wales head coach Kevin Bowring out of retirement at the start of last season in order to help in that area.
Bowring, who worked as the Rugby Football Union’s (RFU) Head of Professional Coaching Development for 14 years between 2002 and 2016, has since been involved with the Welsh governing body on a consultancy basis, visiting coaches at the regions regularly.
According to Dragons forwards coach Ceri Jones – who Bowring mentored when he was doing his coaching badges in England – the ex-Wales boss is the best person for the job.
“You can’t get anyone better than him because he’s seen it all and done it all,” He told RugbyPass. “He’s been great for me from a mentor side of it.”
Information sharing is an integral part of how the Dragons work, and look to improve. As well as Bowring, Wales coach Robin McBryde visits Jones about once a month, while he took his players to Bath for a live session last Wednesday.
The former Newport, Harlequins and Worcester prop has also spent time in South Africa, with the Sharks, and shadowed his old coach John Kingston in London last year.
“Generally the way it works when you’ve got a good network of people, you just tend to talk through things and share ideas,” Jones said. “We’re quite open with that sort of stuff, so that’s generally where the development comes with us.”
“With (McBryde) it’s more of an informal conversation, it’s discussing any new trends in the game, or he might notice something we’re trying to do,” he added. “It’s quite good from that point of view and there’s a lot of sharing going on.”
It was Warren Gatland, during a conversation in 2013, who first encouraged the one-time Ospreys and Blues prop to consider a career in coaching. But Jones says the idea didn’t crystallise until he crossed the Severn Bridge.
“(Gatland) was probably the first one to put it into my mind, and fortunately for me, the chance to go to Quins, when Conor O’Shea and John Kingston wanted to sign me up it was with that kind of role,” Jones, now scrum coach at Quins, told RugbyPass.
“Mentoring, helping with the scrums, taking the scrum sessions and then working under Graeme Rowntree for two years as well. You learn a lot from these things.
“That was the perfect chance, really. I had more of a push on the coaching side of things in England than I did in Wales.”
He is delighted to have found at home in west London with a job that excites him, but remains open to a move back to Wales in the future.
And both he and Ceri are certain that the next generation of homegrown Welsh tacticians will be ready when, and not if, they are called upon.
“There are a lot of good, young Welsh coaches about and I’m sure the opportunity will come,” Ceri Jones said. “(But) that’s certainly not something I’m thinking about at the moment.
“I want to become a very good forwards coach first and foremost, and develop a good strong Gwent pack.”
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