'Rugby is everywhere. You go into a petrol station - people will talk to you about rugby'
“Roddy!” came the anguished cry, rasping down the terrace like a frothing tsunami. “Roddy! Sort the line-out!”
On the touchline, carting water bottles, the scale of his job struck Roddy Grant between the eyes.
A full and throbbing Kingspan was worlds apart from Murrayfield, where he’d played with and coached Edinburgh for nearly a decade, where a few-thousand souls rattled around like Tic-Tacs inside the cavernous venue.
The scrutiny on Ulster Rugby is intense; the expectations towering, even for an assistant coach, as that thick Belfast brogue made abundantly clear.
“Rugby is everywhere, everyone knows it,” Grant tells RugbyPass. “You go into a petrol station – people will talk to you about rugby. It’s awesome how it’s so well supported.
“When there were crowds, it was my favourite place to play apart from Murrayfield. It was amazing – the atmosphere, the passion. The negative side is, there’s expectation and they’re vocal if it doesn’t go well.
“I hear everything from ‘brilliant, the forwards were great, another maul try!’ to those shouts from the terracing. In terms of life experience, coaching experience, that’s awesome. Where else do you have that in life? You’re in that spotlight.”
Injury ripped away Grant’s playing career six years ago at the age of 28, and after a stint coaching in the Scottish Rugby academy system, he returned to Edinburgh as one of Richard Cockerill’s lieutenants.
For two seasons, he helped Cockerill overhaul a club riddled with inaccuracy and inconsistency, making them harder, braver, slicker; propelling them to a first PRO14 play-off and a Champions Cup quarter-final.
— Roddy Grant (@roddygrant) June 16, 2018
“It was a great place to learn under Cockers, and he was so good at being hard on standards of drill the whole time,” Grant says. “I’m really fortunate to be able to come from that environment and take that learning into this one.
“I’m a better coach now than I was when I started here. I realise coming into a place now, changing a line-out calling system takes time. Things take time to embed, relationships with players.”
In Dan McFarland, he could scarcely have found a more different mentor, full of quiet wisdoms and historical references in contrast to Cockerill’s indomitable character and occasional bull-headedness.
When McFarland took over in 2018, Ulster had lost their identity. They could be mesmeric one week and maddening the next. They lacked a core of local talent. They wanted for leadership and organisation. The nine-week trial of Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding, both of whom were cleared of rape, had concluded only months earlier.
The former prop has resurrected this proud province. They made the PRO14 semi-final in his first campaign at the helm, then the final last term, where Leinster had their number. They lost only two league games this season, both to that same champion juggernaut. He has taken them to two Champions Cup quarter-finals and after a truncated European season, Ulster are the bookies’ favourites to win the second-tier Challenge Cup.
Grant’s role here is bigger than at Edinburgh, his responsibility greater.
“His ‘fight for every inch’ mantra is 100% not a new concept, but the thing I find really impressive, from Dan at the top driving it down through to the players, is how linked it is,” Grant says. “How it is actually implemented and the language about it. Each department, whether it’s rugby, athletic performance, medics, players – everything is referenced back to that.
“There is language we’ll use that incorporates that every inch. That competitive side, that real aggressive side, the performance guys will use that in the gym. We use it in skill sessions we do.
“Can I celebrate the defence stealing a line-out against our attack? Can I make a breakdown drill competitive, not so that they’re smashing into each other, but make it a race between two groups to see who cleans out the fastest?
“Physios and medical staff will use that language too. It’s how well messages are driven here.”
Grant looks after the contact and breakdown area, but his baby is the line-out. He calls the set-piece “an art”; the grass is his canvass and the players his giant, 120KG brushes.
He has painted some masterpieces this season, too. Ulster’s line-out is the finest in the Pro14, and their pack scores more tries from mauls than any side in the league.
“They still haunt me as a coach – I joke that I have PTSD from them – but if you can come through those, they set you up brilliantly in the longer term.
“When you prep for a team and suddenly something changes and they do something different, because we’ve gone through those awful days at the office, there’s no twitching, there’s a calmness and confidence.
“We’ve driven the standards consistently, developing leaders really well. Al O’Connor has been calling the most of all the locks and he’s been brilliant. The hookers have been really consistent in their throwing. And we are missing guys through injury, like Sam Carter, Marcell Coetzee, Jack McGrath.”
In coaching terms, Grant is still a relative pup, nearing the end of his second campaign in Belfast, but he seems moulded for the gig. He has always been a man of fierce integrity, the kind of team-first, selfless bloke who revels in the achievements of the group before his own. He flings himself at his work with the same feverish gusto as he hit rucks and scythed down opponents as a flame-haired back-row.
On Saturday, he watched Northampton Saints stun the Dragons in a see-sawing Challenge Cup tie, knowing the winners would face Ulster should they see off Harlequins. On Sunday morning, in the team hotel, he did a few hours’ swotting on Saints and their set-piece threats, before Ulster tore up The Stoop. Then it was back on the plane to Belfast, an early rise, and a full day of analysis.
“That’s the thing with coaching, mate. I got into bed about 3am on Monday, woke up, went through the game to review what we’re going to show on Tuesday. All our new line-outs for Northampton, everything needs to be good to go for 7am on Tuesday. The end of the week, I really enjoy, I’ve got more time and I can catch up with people. I’m going to speak to Paul O’Connell after our team run.”
In between all of that, it was his turn for press duties, and his task to sidestep a raft of questions about Harlequins’ under-strength line-up and how seriously the English sides take the Challenge Cup.
Saints will not field such a patchwork side on Saturday, when Ulster again fly across the Irish Sea with a semi-final at stake.
“Yes, Harlequins missed a few guys but we still did what we wanted to do and scored three maul tries. This weekend, Saints have the best maul defence in the league, they concede the least metres of all the Premiership teams by a long way. Can we still deliver?
“It seems to me that the English clubs want to recruit big, physical forwards. The Leicester game, they rested a few guys but they’ve still got Jasper Wiese and they scored maul tries and were really physical around the park against Connacht.
“This week, Nick Isiekwe is a brilliant player, Tom Wood and David Ribbans might be coming back. Suddenly, it’s a real challenge to win the ball in the line-out and statistically, they’re the best at defending a maul. That doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s a strong part of our game and we’re going to go after them there.”
This past year has been trying. A year like no other. If there is a positive to the bleakness of Covid-19, it is the extra time granted an industrious coach to hone his craft. There is much work to be done and gains to be made.
“I’m better in meetings, at empowering players and leadership,” Grant says. “I’m better at developing leaders in the week, changing the week, stepping back late in the week because the players need to do it at the weekend, right through to my language.
— Ulster Rugby (@UlsterRugby) February 3, 2021
“I’ve worked so hard at my language, getting mic’d up before sessions, in the gym, making sure my language is precise and I don’t waffle. I’ve got a tendency to talk and talk.
“What key language am I going to use this week? In a maul, is it ‘stay north’ or ‘momentum’ or ‘punch’, and how often am I dropping those in? Dan will review that; Matt Wilkie, the IRFU head of coach development, will review that, and so will the team at Red Sky, my agency.
“It’s an endless list of things I want to get better at. And also, I’m 34. I can’t think, off the top of my head, of a younger coach in my role just now.”
And so, to Northampton. Another hectic week; another new test; another opportunity to paint vivid pictures with his set-piece. That fella at the Kingspan can relax – the line-out has, emphatically, been sorted.
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