New Glasgow coach Danny Wilson has never walked a gilded path to the sharp end of professional rugby. Everything he has achieved was forged on a willingness to graft, a lust for study and wisdom and a precious knack of wringing every last drop out of the players at his disposal.
Wilson, who hails from Weston-Super-Mare on the shores of the Bristol Channel, did not enjoy a stellar playing career. At 25, a chronic back problem killed any flickering ambition the former hooker had to make it in the game, a quest he knew deep down was beyond his talent.
“Having not had that playing background, I’ve always had to go through my coaching career proving myself,” Glasgow boss Wilson told RugbyPass. “I’ve had to work right the way up the ladder to get an opportunity at the top.”
The 44-year-old dived headlong into his new calling. If professional squad places are limited, full-time coaching jobs are as abundant as Scottish grand slams, particularly without a notable playing CV and a wealth of contacts to shunt you along.
Wilson was never going to wow players with caps or trophies, but he could captivate them with his knowledge and win their trust with his openness. He spent – and still spends – hour after hour scrutinising the game, becoming something of a rugby geek, but also learned how to create a culture where a vast array of individuals are united in pursuit of a common goal.
?? Not long now…
Our first #GuinnessPRO14 fixtures of the new campaign were confirmed earlier today, with Danny Wilson and his team starting the season away to Connacht next weekend.
— Glasgow Warriors (@GlasgowWarriors) September 23, 2020
His first appointment was inauspicious, a development officer gig in the Rhondda Valley, light-years from the Welsh Premiership, never mind the PRO14. Wilson turned enough heads to earn a job with the Cardiff Blues academy, where his sharp upward trajectory began.
He led London Welsh and the Wales U20s, worked as an assistant at the Dragons, Scarlets and Bristol, before three trying but joyous years as the Blues’ top man that compelled Gregor Townsend to make him Scotland forwards coach.
The road to Glasgow, nearly two decades in the making, has been long and fraught for Wilson. On the way, he has compiled an impressive resume and a reputation as a shrewd thinker. “I believe a huge part of that is studying the game inside out and coaching is a people’s game, it’s not playing,” Wilson said. “A good player doesn’t necessarily make a good coach.
“We could name hundreds of coaches – Jose Mourinho, Steve Hansen, Eddie Jones – who have coached higher than they played. Coaching is about people, managing people, knowing the game tactically and technically and getting the best out of not one specific player but lots of different personalities and players.
“There are some outstanding players who became outstanding coaches, but I certainly have gone through the ups and downs, I’ve made my mistakes along the way. I’ve coached from being a development officer at junior rugby and moved up stage by stage by stage to get the opportunities I have now. Therefore, you acquire a wealth of experience and knowledge along the way. If you make mistakes at the top of the game, you are going to get hurt by them.”
It is cruel that Wilson should begin his Glasgow tenure by effectively defending his credentials for the job. Warriors fans yearned for a heavyweight to replace Australia-bound Dave Rennie this year. They have grown accustomed to success and raucous nights at Scotstoun and for plenty of them, Wilson was an underwhelming figure. The optics of his appointment are not great either, a sideways shift from his position with a wildly unreliable Scotland team that looked cheap and convenient for the Murrayfield hierarchy.
Lost in the noise were Wilson’s significant triumphs as a number one. His brilliant Wales U20s squad scalped New Zealand en route to a Junior World Championship semi-final in 2012 and were runners-up the following season. He won the European Challenge Cup at Cardiff Blues despite heinous financial mayhem and the emotional strain it wreaked. He blooded and refined some fabulous young Welshmen and encouraged his teams to weld attacking flair to defensive ferocity.
“The ‘name’ aspect, that’s something that I’ve come across before,” Wilson said. “When I got appointed Wales U20s coach I got some comments around who is this guy? We made a World Cup final, we finished third in the world and second in the world in my two years there with the best record the U20s have had.
Comment below ? pic.twitter.com/3RYoKdSYpa
— PRO14 RUGBY (@PRO14Official) November 20, 2019
“I go to Cardiff Blues and, not to the same extent as Glasgow, but some people would question my appointment there as not being a big name and after three years, we win a European trophy, get back into the Champions Cup and achieve all the goals set out for us.
“I’m really proud of those involvements as a head coach – and I use the word involvements because it was all of us collectively that achieved those things. And that comes back to my style of shared leadership and getting everyone on the same page.”
At the World Cup in Japan, Scotland were far too loose. Their defensive structure was hamstrung by a willingness to play too much rugby; they maimed themselves by playing in the wrong areas and looked hopelessly exhausted by the time they got within striking distance of the opposition whitewash.
Though he took plenty from Test rugby and learned a heap from Townsend, Wilson longed to be a head coach again. He wanted greater control over a team and a bigger role within it. He vehemently rejects any suggestion that the move to Scotstoun was forced upon him by the governing body.
“I don’t know what you think, but Glasgow is a huge job, and a head coach job, which is a step up from Scotland assistant coach,” Wilson said. “I was responsible for a very different role at Scotland and when I got the opportunity to head coach again, I jumped at it. I certainly wasn’t given an ultimatum to take one job or lose the other.
“When we came out of the World Cup, we collectively lost and I played my part in that, but you look at the areas that you are responsible for and we had the second-best lineout in the tournament. I’m proud of the boys’ involvement and our involvement in the same way that I was disappointed in that area during the Six Nations this year. After the World Cup, there were areas I was coaching that I was pleased with and others that still needed to improve.
“I certainly wasn’t being moved on after Japan, or that certainly wasn’t the picture that was being painted. Conversations had happened earlier than that and then I spoke to Gregor and he was excellent in allowing me to take the Glasgow job.”
In his opening address to the Glasgow squad, conducted through the bizarre medium of a video conference call, Wilson set out his vision for the club. He had interviewed almost every member of staff and senior player and pored over footage from the Rennie era.
He does not seek to tamper with Glasgow’s deep-rooted flamboyance and the attacking verve that courses through the team, but he needs his players to make smarter decisions, defend more robustly and develop a set-piece that can be deployed as a major weapon.
On the PRO14’s Analyst Eye podcast, it was revealed that half of all tries scored in the league last season stemmed from lineout ball. Glasgow’s lineout ranks eighth on their own throw. They have conceded 196 turnovers too – the fourth-highest tally in the tournament – and a fair whack of them led to tries. “What the research and numbers told me was the turnover rate was too high and a lot of tries came off the back of those turnovers. You play a high-risk style, it may well lead to more turnovers,” Wilson said.
'It was effectively us versus the world'
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) April 26, 2020
“At times, it’s about understanding how to be more pragmatic and manage your way through a game that will help keep your defensive record in a slightly better place. Holding Edinburgh to three points in the second 1872 Cup derby was an important step in the right direction. Sometimes you can try to play all the rugby and leave yourselves wide open to scores against if you get turned over.
“When you’re in the arm wrestle in the last ten minutes, the big decisions made by your leaders will be the difference between being successful and not – but you have got to be in that arm wrestle, it’s not high-risk, high-reward all the time.
“Being involved in a high-scoring thriller where you score four or five tries and lose should never happen. It’s important that while we improve those areas, it’s also vital for the supporters and players that we play a fast, attractive style of rugby. Marrying those things up is going to be really important.”
Wilson has already become rather taken with one of the ultimate Warriors at Glasgow. Rob Harley is a dichotomous big chap. On the field, the club’s record appearance holder is a rugged, snarling pugilist with as much regard for his own safety as Harry Houdini. Off it, he is a deeply intelligent, chess-playing would-be-novelist. Such bastions of the Glasgow way are crucial to keeping standards high.
“I tell you, the guy who has impressed me the most in the short time that I’ve been here is Rob Harley,” Wilson said. “Wow. What a good pro who does all the little things really well and if you watch his video, the number of involvements and astute things that guy does that are the glue that allows other players to have X-factor moments.
Pace, precision and patience?
How good was our final try of the 2019/20 season?! ? pic.twitter.com/rskbUV4tKN
— Glasgow Warriors (@GlasgowWarriors) September 22, 2020
“The balance of that is going to be really important. Over the next couple of recruitment cycles, we will look to grow that. I certainly want a hard-nosed defensive team that is physical. This is my first imprint of that and there is hopefully more to come.”
Despite Rennie’s tepid final season, there is no doubt that Glasgow at their best with their rock starts available are a dazzling force, but how often will Wilson be able to field their premier talent? He anticipates losing around 15 players to international duty between Scotland and Fiji in the autumn, and another slew during the Six Nations. His entire starting pack, his two back-up hookers, pair of best scrum-halves, front-line pivot and three centres might all conceivably go.
Opportunities will arise for the burgeoning crop of academy players, for Jamie Dobie, the teenage scrum-half who delivered an immense debut campaign straight out of school and Rufus McLean, the young full-back promoted to the senior squad. But for those vexing weeks while the big boys are away, it won’t do to simply lob a batch of callow kids in at the deep end and hope they thrive in the searing heat of top-class rugby.
“It will give us a chance to blood Scottish-qualified players which long-term will have huge benefits but short-term might produce a bit of pain,” Wilson said. “They will get exposure quicker and that’s not always the right way. People think dropping young players into games is development and I disagree.
“It’s understanding when is the right time for that player to go into that game and what combinations are around him. Anyone can drop players into games, but if they’re not ready, they get a bad experience and that leads to difficulties getting back from that quickly. The art is to pick your moments.”
Since taking the job back in November, the ground has not so much shifted under Wilson’s feet as subjected him to seismic tremors. His recruitment plans were ravaged by the Covid-19 pandemic and unless players leave, it is highly unlikely he will have the budget to bring more in. There are obvious gaps in Glasgow’s squad, but Wilson will not allow coronavirus to become an excuse for falling short of his targets.
“The backdrop has changed quite dramatically from when I accepted the job to where we are now, but I am confident in the long term that I will be part of a successful group here,” he said. “I’ve had to answer those questions throughout my career and I’m confident I’ll do that again.
“We will still get to where we want to, I still think we will be successful and create that pride and passion in Glasgow Warriors. But we’re just facing a different set of challenges and we have got to get our teeth into them. It will be an even bigger achievement if we can do so.”
Adversity, scrutiny and doubt – these are no new obstacles to a coach who has come up the hard way and consistently upset the odds.
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