Phil has recently released a captivating book detailing his experiences from playing to coaching England to a World Cup win. It comes highly recommended by all of us here at the RBN and it is available for purchase by clicking this link The Iron Curtain.
What led to you becoming a defence coach?
I was naturally an attacking player who had to work hard on the defensive aspect of my game. For that reason, I became more technically minded and better suited to coaching on defence than attack.
How did you gain the expertise you needed to coach at the highest level?
Obviously my own playing experiences taught me a lot, but both codes of rugby in Australia have been massive influences on my life and coaching experience. Whilst Director of Coaching of Rugby League, I visited Sydney regularly and spent lots of time with Jack Gibson (considered by many as the greatest coach the sport ever had), Ron Massey, Frank Stanton, Frank Johnson and Peter Corcoran. Then, after the 2003 World Cup, I visited the Sydney City Roosters and found Ricky Stuart most helpful too.
I respond to the Australian attitude to sport. They are tough and uncompromising opponents, but when you gain their respect, they are incredibly welcoming and helpful.
So defence isn’t an invention of the professional era, it has a long-established theoretical side to it?
There is a very strong line running through defence coaching and it’s still going strong. Jack Gibson made several trips to the USA to observe the legendary NFL coach Vince Lombardi. Jack then coached ex-Australia and current Gloucester defence coach John Muggleton at Parramatta Eels and ex-GB coach Brian Noble at Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks.
On the 2001 Lions tour, Graham Henry, who knew very little about coaching defence, spent every spare moment working with me and a group of 6 or 7 players, learning the systems and how to put them into practice. He went back to Auckland Blues in 2003 primarily as defence coach and was officially Head Coach and solely responsible for defence during his very successful seven-year stint with the All Blacks from 2004. To this day, the AB’s still use that 2001 defence that England used winning the World Cup.
What are the main challenges for a defence coach?
One of the main problems with defence is that it’s not always seen as a priority by individuals. That doesn’t mean they are bad at defence, but they see attack as the main reason they are on the field and look at defence simply as something that has to be done.
Trying to change that mind-set is key. Will Greenwood was very much like me in the early part of my playing career in that he wasn’t overly interested in defence. By the time the World Cup came around it was something in which he took great pride and the stats suggest he was one of the best defensive centres at that tournament. Such small shifts in individuals’ attitudes can offer large gains for teams.
What was it like coaching the Lions?
Coaching the Lions is an almost impossible task. By 2001, England’s defence system had been in place for a couple of years, yet the Irish and Welsh had no defence coaching at all, with the Scots having only had a defence coach for one season. The easiest mistake to make with the Lions is to try to coach too much and I think we did exactly that in 2001 and 2005.
In 2005, Clive Woodward tried to instil in players over 4 or 5 days what the England team had taken 4 or 5 years to fully grasp. Ian McGeechan, with many more years of experience, tried to limit the amount of information passed to the players and I think, with the benefit of hindsight, that it’s the best way to go.
On Lions tours, the host nations have much more time in camp and will always be more thoroughly blended at the start. The Lions would be much better placed if their tours were longer, but that looks less and less likely with the crammed international schedule.
What does the future hold for you, rugby-wise?
It was always international sport that really turned me on and I still love watching the big games. Despite being officially retired, I still get the odd request for coaching assistance and I’ll always try to help if I can. The last team was Huddersfield RUFC and I have to say I still absolutely love the craic. The boots will still get muddy from time to time.