Of all the young players that John Mulvihill has helped nurture in his 21 years as a coach, David Pocock is the one who has made the Cardiff Blues boss most proud.
Not merely because of his 71 Test caps for Australia or reputation as one of the finest players of his generation. No, Mulvihill’s pride stems as much from acts the Wallabies back-row has performed away from the pitch as on it.
One anecdote the Blues head coach proudly relays relates to a time when an 18-year-old Pocock won a man-of-the-match award playing for the Western Force, and with it a cheque for $1,000.
“What would you do with 1,000 bucks?” Mulvihill asks RugbyPass half-rhetorically. Few players at that age would have even pondered what Pocock decided to do with his bonus.
Instead of depositing it behind a bar or into a savings account, the future Wallabies captain headed to a discount department store in the city. There, he bought 20 $50 sleeping bags.
“He threw them in his car, drove round Perth,” Mulvihill picks up the story.
“He got out of his car and saw a guy on the side of the street, and said ‘listen mate, I hope this will help you feel a bit more protected and safe and what-have-you’. He did that.”
By the time he decided to call it a night all 20 of the sleeping bags had been handed out to Perth’s homeless. It is not Mulvihill’s only memory of Pocock’s philanthropy, he proceeds to recount the time the pair and their Force colleagues went to hand out rugby kit at a school in Africa.
Denied entry to the school, the group instead decided to throw the balls and jerseys over the wall. Such anecdotes highlight the values that the coach holds dear, those he aims to instil at the Blues.
“Just little things like that make you think that if you can do something to make someone a little bit happier in life that’s brilliant,” he says.
“For me, I want the boys to have an understanding that yeah, we’re in our little world here but there’s so much stuff going on outside that we need be aware of a little bit.
“Giving your time is free, we’re not asking you to give 100 bucks, we’re asking you to give some time.”
To that end Mulvihill accompanied players from the academy on a visit to a homeless shelter in Cardiff city centre in July to help serve meals to those in need. He intends it not to be a one-off.
“We’ll hopefully get a Christmas drive going and a few other things to get them to understand that it’s not just about (results),” he explains. “We lost a game last weekend (against Leinster), it’s not the end of the world. We got a couple of points.”
Revealing what he told his players following that opening night defeat to Leinster, Mulvihill’s first competitive match at the Cardiff Arms Park, he adds: “I said to them ‘walk out of this room, stand tall, have a smile on your face, go out there and say hello to people.
“Because they supported you tonight and you put on a great show. We didn’t get what we wanted but we did get something out of it, and we’ve got our season started. That will be the same message throughout the year. I think the Cardiff Blues fans get it.”
Maintaining a close relationship with supporters is integral to Mulvihill’s plans in Cardiff. “We talked about us being in a little bit of a privileged position doing this as a job,” he says.
“The fans, they work all week and take money out of their pockets to buy season tickets and to come along to support. I always say to the boys that things like saying please and thank you and having a smile, those things are free.”
Mulvihill’s team has not made the start to the season he would have hoped for, defeat to Treviso following their one-point loss to Leinster. But he is determined to provide stability at a region that had changed coaches with alarming regularity in the four years before Danny Wilson was appointed in 2015.
The Australian’s ambitious targets this season include reaching the PRO14 play-offs and winning at least two matches in the Champions Cup. “We have to be minimum third, second, first (in Conference A) so we can then put ourselves in the picture to play finals rugby,” he says.
More long-term he wants to build on the good Wilson did, while producing future Wales players and developing a homegrown coach who will be ready to take over when the time comes for him to step down.
Mulvihill made a start on the coaching front before he even arrived in Wales. Having canvassed the opinions of Geraint John, the Welsh Rugby Union’s (WRU) head of rugby performance, WRU Group chief executive Martyn Phillips and his counterpart at the Blues, Richard Holland, he decided to bring in Tom Smith and Jason Strange.
In a subsequent move Richard Hodges, retained from Wilson’s reign alongside Duane Goodfield, was promoted to a senior role in which he effectively takes charge of first-team matters when Mulvihill is otherwise engaged.
“Probably where the Cardiff Blues let themselves down a little bit last year, was that they were under-resourced in coaching,” he explains.
“You had Danny (Wilson), Jockey (Goodfield) and Hodgey (Richard Hodge), and when you have 40-50 players out there, it’s pretty hard for three people to do it. Particularly if Danny got called away for other things.”
“Those guys work well together,” Mulvihill says of his current back-room team. “I would hope to think that in five years’ time that one of those guys is ready to step up.”
Going forward do not be surprised if Sam Warburton is added to that roster in some capacity. “We want him to be in and around the group,” Mulvihill admits. “We haven’t seen him a hell of a lot since he’s left but we’ll get him in from time to time.
“He seems to be a very busy man now. Off the field he is probably more busy than when he was playing, and good on him.”
Warburton isn’t the only busy man in the Cardiff area. Mulvihill has been working long days since arriving at the Blues in June, getting to his office at The Vale at 6.30am every morning and sometimes not getting home until 9pm if he has a meeting or commitment in the city.
He has assured his wife, who is in the process of leaving their four grown-up daughters at home to move to south Wales, that things will get easier now the season is under way.
Mulvihill doesn’t seem certain those words will prove accurate. “I just think that the first impression you have on someone could be the only impression they have,” he says. “So you really need to work on that it’s a positive one.”
In Mulvihill’s case, the initial impression has been an encouraging one.
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