The Journey to a National Championship
On Sunday November 12th 2017 New York Rugby Club (NYRC) became the first side in the USA to win THREE Women's Premier League (WPL) Championships.
The side had an unbeatable season going 10-0-0. This however was no easy task. Reflecting back on the 18th months work that got NYRC to this point has been a great coaching challenge and one I have thoroughly enjoyed and learnt a great deal from.
The purpose article of this is for me to use this as a reflection tool. I often reflect in many ways other than this but I feel like this is a good time to look back at the last 18 months and to challenge myself by writing down my reflections and making them public for people to view comment on, hopefully leading to further reflection and learning.
This is all my perspective and not New York Rugby Clubs or James' view of what happened or how it happened.
Phase 1 - The Coaching Team
James English took over the side as head coach from Wil Snape who had had worked hard developing players over the past few years. James had assisted Will and they had worked together for a season before Wil moved out of NY for professional reasons. The foundation was set here but there was still a lot of work to do. James then brought myself on board to help him and improve the club from where it currently stood.
James was very clear with expectations of our roles and what we would be looking to do as a coaching staff and how we would want & could achieve that. However, this wasnt James saying this is how we are doing it and this is the final say. He expected me to challenge and question his thoughts and ideas, two minds are better than one after all.
James' coaching philosophy is slightly different to mine but all in all very similar, however we both matched on a playing philosophy and how we think and believe the game should be played. This sounds obvious but it allows things like how training should be ran, what activities to include, and how selections are made much easier.
It also helps that we get on off the field and are not afraid to give each other honest or critical feedback as with out taking things personally and understanding that it is all for the bigger picture.
Phase 2 - The Planning
With pre-season starting in August 2016 it was important that as a coach staff we were explicit on how were were looking to approach the WPL 2016 season. With a meeting before training started it was interesting to see how players would react to what we were offering. A very simple meeting around two things.
Culture & Development.
Culture: What is it? Why do we have it? How do we create it?
Development: Expectations from coaches, Expectations from players both ways, Personal & Team goals.
The rest of the meeting was around the season structure & the training phases.
Phase 3 - The Fall
With only having a month to work with the players before the 1st game it was interesting to see what would happen. From a macro perspective it was important to James that game plan and understanding was there where for me I was very much focused on the smaller things that would allow us to execute the tactics. The 1st pre season came came around and I think we as a club and a team surprised ourselves with the level of play. We were fortunate to have a few players who were fighting to get into the World Cup Player pool meaning we had a good mixture of top level players, club veterans a new players to the game and the club.
While losing in the semi final at the WPL National Championships in the Fall of 2016 to a much better side this experience was one James & I needed to understand ourselves as coaches more. It could be argued our approach to the semi final was wrong & we could have done a better job in some areas. Both on and off the field that may have impacted the result of the game. However, this is so valuable as coaches as this was one of our biggest coaching lessons that season and helped us learn and grow.
Where 'win - lose ratio' doesn't define you as a coach (media will), what does define you, is if you are effective in the improvement of people. It's not a secret... as the all blacks say - "Better People, Better All Blacks". This helps with many thinks that all add up to what happens on the field. After the semi final loss in 2016 there was a hunger to improve, learn more and raise standards. As New York's motto is Excelsior: Ever Upwards. Fall 2016 Results - 7-0-1
Vs DC Furies – 48 – 0 – WON
Vs Atlanta – 24 – 16 – WON
Vs Amazons – 42 – 15 – WON
Vs Atlanta – 31 – 5 – WON
Vs Amazons – 62 – 24 – WON
Vs DC Furies – 67 – 0 – WON
Vs Glendale – 13 – 37 – LOST (Semi) - The game where most learning was done.
Vs Amazons – 29 – 10 – WON (3rd Place)
Phase 4 - Development: Spring season. Emphasis here was to play games, bring in new players, develop existing talent and increase the volume rugby. Senior players who had retired from the fall retired and the players looking to get into the world cup squad also didn't play. This allowed us to grow in depth and also work towards focusing on the smaller things. We were able to bring in new players and expose them to the NYRC culture and style of rugby and also work with players in different positions challenging everyone at all times. This helped with decision making, skills and tactical awareness as players were pulled from their comfort zone.
Phase 5 - 7's
From the fun and enjoyable spring season on to the summer and playing 7's. This is where I was able to take the lead and James was able to rest. It's vital that coaches are able to take a break. Coach welfare is an important issue and something that not a lot of people or coaches look at.
The purpose of me taking over the 7's was to try and improve the fundamental skills and game understanding of players and also to raise the fitness levels of players. The sevens season was one with much growth and development. It was a challenge also from the players who now had a different head coach a a few months & they would have to adapt to my slightly different way of doing things from a coaching point of view. One of the differences from the summer to the previous few months is that there was much more competitive practices, and people competing for spots against each other. There was a great deal of competition in the training and also in the sevens tournaments as two teams competed against the same teams and also each other. Where in the 15's season everyone was competing towards the same goals.
The sevens season allowed players to improve their fundamental skills but also recognize that they had much more playing potential than maybe they thought they did. the level of improvement from players was fantastic because they were committed to what was being asked of them.
It also exposed them to high levels of 'pressure' when it tight games they were able to execute their skills needed in order to keep progressing in their development. It was an unfortunate end to the season losing in the 1/4 finals to the 2016 champions (the only game they lost, 30-0-1) however it was also a positive as the club finished 5th in the nation, the highest they have ever placed before.
From this season players were also able to improve to the point where they could compete and try out and some got selected for the Northeast Olympic Development Academy. They then competed against the top players in the country at the start of September in a tournament where the Development Academies came together to compete. The Northeast Academy came out as over all winners but there was many learning opportunities for the NYRC players involved one being more belief in their own ability.
This was also a big learning curve for me as a coach as well as you will read in Phase 6.
Phase 6 - The 'Can Do' Season.
The 2016 fall season was themed around a #WhyNotUs mentality. Meaning, why cant we be successful? 2017 started with a #CanDo mindset where were were in the belief that we as a club were in the business to improve & develop. National finals were not talked about rather the focus was much more on producing excellence in the small parts of the games you were involved in and looking how you as a player can effect the team in therms of the bigger picture of how the team plays.
Due the nature of the sevens season I personally ran in to some conflict with in the team, regarding my approach and feedback on how the sevens season had gone. This for me is and was expected as I had changed how I wanted to coach in certain areas to see what effects on the players it would have. It was an interesting dynamic but I wont go into to much detail on it but how it was resolved was by having open and honest conversations and meetings with players, captains and James as the head coach of the 15's program.
Much of the focus off the field in the fall of 2017 was around how Jame & I and the captains could align ourselves to do what was best for the club, team & players. Massive credit here has to go towards James and the captains for constantly working on this and making sure people felt valued and aligned in the NYRC mission. The biggest learning curve for me was watching the dynamic of James and how he worked with the captains. Coaching is an art and this was the best part about James' approach to the season (for me).
As the season went on we started how we always had by winning games, but this wasnt enough for the coaching staff, winning games is a bonus but were were very much focused on HOW we win games. The process became important. How we score our try's, how we behave on the field , how we hold out own in defense all because very explicit to the players.
It was also great to see an understanding of the players on the sideline who didn't get a starting position, that they were there as part as the bigger picture and that they can genuinely come off the bench, impact & win a game if that was required of them. this helped 15 become a strong 23.
Heading into the finals this year competition was strong and because of this 23 quickly become 26 and the three players that didn't make it on to the roster fulfilled their roles and were fantastic at them. They would kit up and train, warm up and provide the team with positive energy on and off the field. Its the players like this that ultimately create a strong team culture. Is these players can show these behaviors of the field then it only drives the players on the field to do the same thing.
Heading into the semi final James & I learnt a lot from the 2016 semi final and our approach and behaviors towards the game. We discussed it in great detail and the result of which was show in the 1st 20 minutes of the semi final where we played some of the best rugby we have ever played. It turns out that 1st 20 minutes though wasnt enough and credit to the response of the opponents they came back strong.
This then was a real test for NYRC and they managed to pull thought the test with purely trusting the process and playing with real heart. However, that was just half the job done now. James & I were very happy with the result as it meant that we were guaranteed to show improvement, 2016 we finished 3rd, 2017 were are now guaranteed to finish at least 2nd. Progress.
During the final we went down at quickly and the HT score was 12-5, the message at half time was very nothing outstanding. Trust the process, get back into our shape and stick the to the philosophies.
If the semi final proved anything it is that the side never gives up. While the opposition were a player down the managed to score again putting the score to 19-5. With 20 minutes to go NYRC started to pick up steam. They trusted the process and the defensive line started to beak. A few moments of excellence from the team allowed NYRC to score so great team try's. In a nail biting finish NYRC were able to hold their lead and managing to win the game.
Fall 2017 Results - 10-0-0
1. Vs Beantown – 43 – 19 – WON
2. Vs Atlanta – 21 – 0 – WON
3. Vs Amazons – 53 – 41 – WON
4. Vs DC Furies – 68 – 0 – WON
5. Vs Beantown – 38 – 8 – WON
6. Vs Atlanta – 36 – 12 – WON
7. Vs DC Furies – 48 – 10 - WON
8. Vs Amazons – 32 – 15 – WON
9. Vs Surfers – 38 – 32 – WON (Semi)
10. Vs Glendale – 27 – 26 – WON (Final)
Phase 7 - The Leadership (The Glue)
As already mentioned the captains played a crucial role in the success of the team. The leadership shown by the captain and the vice captain was great to see. There was real buy in from other players on the and off the field about what the captains were asking and there the was from my perspective true alignment in what coaches and players wanted, this was really evident on the Saturday night team dinner where players spoke about how much they enjoyed and valued being part of a community, a club, a family like NYRC. Obviously it is nice to win championships but its great to hear that a sport and a team can impact that many people with that much influence.
The Journey In NUMB3RS
Having said that its also nice from a coaching perspective to turn around at after winning something like this and looking at what you have achieved as a team and a coaching staff. Coaching is never about winning but winning is a by product of having a set philosophy & process in place. As a coach i'm very much a qualitative coach and don't care to much for stats or numbers but sometimes its nice to see the impact you have in numbers especially as this is how society & the media judge your effectiveness as a coach.
Try Scoring Breakdown
WPL 2016 Season
Games Played: 8
Games Won: 7
Games Lost: 1
Total Try's: 52
From Back's: 28
From Forward's: 24
Average Try's Per Game: 6.5
Total games played: 31 Total games won: 30 Total games lost: 1 Total points scored: 1188 Total points conceded: 129
WPL 2017 Season
Games Played: 10
Games Won: 10
Games Lost: -
Total Try's: 65
From Back's: 44
From Forward's: 21
Average Try's Per Game: 6.5
ACROSS WPL 2016 & 2017 SEASONS PLUS 1st SIDE 2017 7s SEASON TOTAL POINTS SCORED: 1908
TOTAL POINTS CONCEDED: 399
POINTS DIFFERENCE: 1509 TOTAL GAMES PLAYED: 49
AVERAGE POINTS PER GAME SCORED: 38.9 AVERAGE POINTS CONCEDED: 8.1
Watch some of the 2017 final highlights here: