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Three wise men... and RugbyPass

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'I don't make as much money as Alex Ferguson makes... I'm not buying a bottle of red for anybody'

Wednesday in London presented a challenge for RugbyPass – getting three of the Gallagher Premiership coaches to sit down and casually chew the fat together before the new season in England gets going. 

We succeeded, an Irishman, an Englishman and a South African joining us at Twickenham to collectively talk rivalries, favourite away days, summer weekends without matches and more about the highly pressurised job that is running a professional rugby club. 

RUGBYPASS: What are the relationships between the various Premiership directors of rugby? 

JOHANN ACKERMANN – Gloucester: We all know we are in the same scenario and there is a lot of pressure that comes with it for different reasons. But at the end of the day, maybe different from soccer is that we have all been part of the game for a long time and we know it still stays a game. Rugby is friendships off the field as well, although we are competitive on the field on the day and we are sad or we are happy if we win or lose. We know as human beings it is a game and rugby is just going to bring the best out of you and there is a friendship off the field as well. From my side, if you win you respect the guy for the same reason that you respect him before the game. If you lose you respect him for what he has done and achieved. 

DECLAN KIDNEY – London Irish: Very well said.

PAUL GUSTARD – Harlequins: I can’t really add to that.

KIDNEY: Keep asking the questions (general laughter).

(Continue reading below…)

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RUGBYPASS: We hear in football that rival managers used to love going for a glass of red in Alex Ferguson’s office when he was managing Manchester United. Are you guys similarly able to catch up after games? 

GUSTARD: I don’t make as much money as Alex Ferguson makes (laughs)… I’m not buying a bottle of red for anybody. Look, probably post the game, like Johan says, the kind of emotion, you are either on a big high because you are on a victory or you are reflecting on a performance or on a result that is going to affect your weekend with your family or your preparation for next week and it’s trying to get yourself back to an even keel as quickly as possible.

If we travel somewhere, an away game, you try and get back so the players can rest and regenerate again for a Monday because we are all on the same hamster wheel. We have four Premiership Cup games this year straight into 15 games on the spin, Gallagher Premiership and European Rugby, and it is constant, so you need to keep yourself invigorated and energised. The more you can try and keep the emotion in check, which is a big learning thing for me, (the more) that you get yourself back home with your family and reflect like that.

KIDNEY: The game is just so technical and tactical, we’re probably busiest from the final whistle until the Tuesday evening and then you are sort of handing back the ownership of the team to the players. They have to rest up and they are coming in wondering what happened and you have to prepare that from the very end of the game. It doesn’t stop us from actually meeting or shaking hands and respect, as Johan says, is a big part of it. It’s part of the culture of rugby that has been there ever since the game has been invented.

We do have a good cut off one another out on the pitch but then we can shake hands at the end of it, and that is the nature of our game and our sport. That is what makes it so good and I suppose the fact that it is such a team game that it is never dependant on any one person to be a part of it. So we all know we are part of a team and we are probably a focal point, but it is still a mystery to me as to why you [the media] want to talk to us so much as against talking to the players because we don’t play.

We all actually have similar problems and we all have similar challenges that go with the job and once you are in that environment then you know you have genuine respect for one another as well in how to go about it because all the teams play with a spirit in them. It is such a physical contact game that it would be easy to tip it over but everybody holds the right side of the line and we get on with it and we shake hands at the end it. Funnily enough, a media day like today is unusual because we are probably under the least pressure. All you (media) guys are under pressure today, so it is a bit of change and this is probably the one day of the year we probably do get the chance to talk. Not that I’m saying we want any more media days…

Gallagher Premiership rugby directorsPaul Gustard (back left), Johan Ackermann (front middle) and Declan Kidney (front right) with the nine other Gallagher Premiership directors of rugby (Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images for Premiership Rugby)

ACKERMANN: I also think in answer to your question every game differs in the commitments after the game. Most of my experience in my time here is the coaches will talk before because they may be early on the field and they bump into each other and they will talk but afterwards, like Paul said, they want to get on the bus and go. The home coach has got so much media stuff that the longer you wait the longer that is going to take. And if there is TV you have to go across the field to do a live interview and by the time you have done that the other team are already on the bus. And then the emotional factor, sometimes you go and sit and reflect on why didn’t we get a performance. By the time you get up (they are gone)… but the respect always stays and if you do see each other at an event like this, we all know we are in the same challenges. 

RUGBYPASS: Is there a hiring and firing culture creeping into rugby? Leicester’s Matt O’Connor attended this event last year and was gone after one game and it highlighted no-one has a job forever.  

GUSTARD: Things change but we are not the only job where things change. If I was thinking all the time about losing my job then I probably would not focus on what I need to do, which is doing my job well. I am lucky that we have the support of the board, the support of our CEO, the support of the team and I just want to focus on trying to get a performance out and win the next thing. I am not thinking about seven years’ time, 10 years’ time. That is in the back of the mind – we are trying to put an infrastructure to ensure that Harlequins are successful and competitive for a long period of time, but my main thing is how to win the next game, how to prepare the team well, how to get the performance that you want whether it’s tactical, it’s technical, it’s emotional, it’s mental, it’s physical.

You are trying to make sure that what you do during the week ticks all those things so you get the performance and the result, more often than not, will take care of itself. I’m not one to walk through life worrying about the next thing. I have enough things going on in my life that I don’t need to be thinking about that. I just what to focus on the team, give the very best of myself to the team, ask the same of them to me, the same of them to the badge that they play for and that is all I can ask. Give it your best, have the best chance on a Saturday, work your balls off and then that is all I can ask.

RUGBYPASS: Is there a favourite away day in the Premiership? 

GUSTARD: For me, I would say it is one of the traditional rugby clubs. To go down to Gloucester is a fantastic environment, a fantastic stadium. Leicester, Northampton, Bath. Any one of those four venues is outstanding. 

ACKERMANN: I know there is a big passion and rivalry between Bath and Gloucester so you feel a bit more intensity in the air in the weeks of that game. Just because of the supporters, it is important. That game is the one but again it might sound cliched, I don’t want to make one game bigger than another for the fact that this competition is so close and the teams are so competitive that you have to respect every team. For me, it is a great experience in the last two years to see the teams that you only saw on TV in South Africa. To experience them live is great and the special fact is that at 90 per cent of the venues we sit in seats among the supporters so you feel the atmosphere. It makes it quite special and competitive.

RUGBYPASS: It is going to be new to you, Declan?

KIDNEY: Yes, it is. It is one of the things that England has, there is a lot of quintessential rugby grounds and to be able to go to them is a privilege, to be just able to experience that because they all have their own feel about them. To pick out one? Obviously, the one that you do the least travelling to. Between Quins and ourselves that is the one where you have the least travelling to, so we will take that one. But no, all the grounds are quite different and that is what makes it so special to go to them. 

RUGBYPASS: We’re told not to covet your neighbour but is their one signing by a rival club this summer that you wish you had made?

ACKERMANN: Any player from any team?

KIDNEY: That is a good answer (laughter). 

GUSTARD: I am happy with my squad, happy with my squad.  

KIDNEY: That is a better answer (more laughter)… that is an impossible question as a coach to answer because there is a lot of good players in it. That thing you talked about earlier about respect, that is what makes it such a wide open competition, that there are so many good players. It is a case of how many you can get fit at any one time has a big part to do with it then too. There is good players, but I’d be happy with my squad.  You’d have to hold that question, I’d say.

RUGBYPASS: What were you guys like having so many weekends without matches over the summer, what filled up the time?

GUSTARD: I would still say I am pretty busy on a Saturday, Sunday even though we are not in a game. There is different things. Everyone has to find a space away from the game. We are all fortunate that probably over a pre-season you try and acclimatise a team to re-train. Everyone is trying to push the boundary in terms of performance and physical boundaries as well. We are all trying to find that next two or three per cent because the margins are so small. You saw how tight the Premiership was last year. Fantastic teams, some brilliant players and outstanding coaches have come into our competition again this year so it gets tougher and tighter every year. Probably when we work on a Monday to Friday during pre-season, the Saturday and Sunday is just about reflection, making sure to prepare the team well again the following week and then just take some time with my wife and kids. I have three young kids – probably more tiring, more draining than the job. But it is good to spend time with them.   

ACKERMANN: I have enjoyed it. It is going to be challenging when we get back into the games but I obviously had time away in South Africa and once back in pre-season with weekends, me and my wife tried to see a bit more of the country so we hopped on the train and go to Birmingham, go to Bristol and go to some villages close by. We do a lot of those things to spend good time seeing a bit more of the country.

KIDNEY: Me? Weekends? I suppose because I’m not too far from home (in Cork), I can hop over and back a few times before Brexit comes in (laughs). It flies really, the summer. You don’t actually know where your weekends go. You have a lot of personal stuff that you actually have to shelve during the regular season and you are trying to catch up with that because we are still working Monday to Friday in the off-season and at weekends the players are off. Sometimes on Saturday some of them are in so it can be a five-and-a-half day week against a seven-day week now so you just use that other time just to chill out, go for a walk. I live in a good area, plenty of parks to walk around and that is enjoyable.

RUGBYPASS: The World Cup is about to start. Will you guys be able to find time in your busy jobs to take an interest and watch? 

ACKERMANN: I will have one eye on it just to see the way it goes. It depends on the timings of the games. I’m not sure when we will be on the training field if it is a Friday game or when will be travelling to a venue. But if available and it has some of your own team, I definitely would like to watch a few games. I’m excited for England to see how the team goes and then for South Africa to see how they do. 

GUSTARD: Much the same, really. When we can we will (watch). But also we will try and look to see what we can learn as well. There are so many things happening at the World Cup – refereeing interpretation or style of play or how they go about the breakdown, bits and pieces like that, just trying to take what we can. It is an amazing experience to be in a World Cup. For England to be in Japan it is going to be a fantastic tournament. You want to feel that you can watch it and enjoy it for what it is. Of course, there is one eye on some of your own players playing in the competition as well.

KIDNEY: I suppose it is one of the challenges in the coming weeks because I enjoy watching rugby matches, but also the fact that you would have an emotional involvement in your own team. A lots of the games are going to be Fridays, Saturdays and if we are heading off and have a match on a Saturday afternoon and you are after watching your country play that morning all of a sudden you find yourself twice as emotionally drained, so you are going to have to stay on course to do the day job first to be right for the afternoon. We will watch it as best we can. I have no doubt we will be stuck to the telly there for a few weeks, especially as the competition goes on. There is a few tasty matches up front too – just as we kick off you have New Zealand-South Africa. We will all have a view on that and then go out and play a (Premiership) Cup match that afternoon. That will be a full day.

WATCH: The RugbyPass Lego World Cup

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The English domestic season kicks off on Friday, September 20, with the Premiership Rugby Cup, followed on October 18 – the weekend of the World Cup quarter-finals – with the start of the Gallagher Premiership Rugby campaign 

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'I don't make as much money as Alex Ferguson makes... I'm not buying a bottle of red for anybody'