Cardiff Blues’ first team coaches have benefitted from Career Professional Development during the off-season, as they travelled the globe to experience life-in-camp at world-class sporting establishments.
Wales’ Capital Region boast a young and exciting backroom staff, and the region alongside the Welsh Rugby Union have encouraged the coaches to broaden their horizons and spend time learning from industry leaders.
New backs and attack coach, Richie Rees, had some hands-on experience, working with the Wales Sevens side, while also spending time with former Cardiff Blues centre, Casey Laulala at Racing 92.
His colleagues travelled as far as Australia, South Africa and USA, with defence coach, Richard Hodges, opting for the rainbow nation, where he would spend a game-week alongside the coaching team of Super Rugby giants, Stormers, who were preparing for a season-defining match against South African rivals, Sharks.
The former academy manager explained: “I met with the Welsh Rugby Union and Dan Clements [WRU Performance Coach Manager] around the Christmas period, and I was keen to see, taste and smell a Super Rugby environment. We’ve trained at the Stormers’ training ground when we’ve been over there to play the Cheetahs and the Southern Kings and I really felt there was a defensive identity around the place.
“I went over to Cape Town, and was welcomed with open arms by Robbie Fleck, Dawie Snyman, Russell Winter and Norman Laker, and they gave me full access to their training week. It was a good week to be there as they had a winner-takes-all match against Sharks on the following Saturday.
“To spend the week with them and being able to see how they run their scheduling, the content of their technical and tactical detail that goes in, the culture amongst the players, the way the business is ran and be able to compare and contrast it with what we do here at Cardiff Blues made it more than a worthwhile week.
“There’s been a very broad spectrum of where coaches have been this year, and it’s all about learning and improving. There’s huge similarities between Stormers and the Western Province, which is similar to Cardiff Blues and Cardiff RFC, and they have more than 90 clubs in their area, and a very famous club with a huge history and tradition behind them.
“I left there being very impressed with their scheduling and how they conduct their meetings. They make sure to keep it short and sharp, and they had some stand-up meetings, where you have no chairs and the boys are huddled around the screens, and it kept them engaged throughout.
“We want less meetings and shorters meetings this season, and have been using these principals so far and the feedback has been good. We want to become a very player-led environment, and the leadership group have an influence in certain areas both on and off the field, including defence, attack, set-piece, kicking. Those boys will have an even bigger task on their hands this season.”
Forwards coach, Tom Smith, spent time with some of the game’s most experienced coaches, attending the Guinness Six Nations’ annual coaching conference in Bergerac, France.
Smith said: The conference included some top quality guest speakers. There’s a theme set for each weekend, and the topic they focused on this time was the high-performance environment and the pressures of challenges and set-backs.
“Dean Richards [Director of Rugby, Newcastle Falcons] was one of the highlights, as he gave a great insight into himself as a person, and his coaching journey. He explained his progression through the clubs and how he’s developed as a coach.
“It was also really interesting to hear from Stuart Lancaster and Leo Cullen of Leinster, and how their coaching set-up works. They’ve put a collaborative coaching team together, and explained how they work with each other, and it was impressive to have that insight after the success they’ve had over the last few years.
“We also looked at the impact of mental health, which is becoming prevalent, and ways to become aware of that and help your players deal with the issues.
“A big part of the three days was also an opportunity to mix and network with the other coaches present, from different countries, and you’ll find that bending each other’s ears about what you do is where a lot of the learning comes from.
“It helps a lot to share a bit of tactical knowledge, the make up of your squads and your training sessions and how your run things in general. Those informal conversations build up your network and give you strong contact that you can reach out to when needed.
“A lot of the time the biggest learning after spending time in these environments is to reflect what you currently do and it can also give you reassurance that you’re on the right tracks and heading in the correct direction. That can be as important as searching for new knowledge.”
Meanwhile, Robin Sowden-Taylor had made the long journey to Brisbane, Australia, to have an insight into how an NRL side worked. The Broncos’ strength and conditioning coach is Irishman, Ryan Whitley, who spent a number of seasons with Cardiff Blues.
The former Wales international also travelled to Las Vegas for the Leaders in Sports conference, and believes it’s important to continually learn from various sports to stay ahead of the curve.
“I had the opportunity to do my CPD with one of the world’s most well-renowned and established rugby league teams, the Brisbane Broncos in Australia. We have a link there with our former S&C coach, Ryan Whitely, who is working there now,” said Sowden-Taylor.
“I worked with him closely for a number of years and hold him in very high regard from a professional point-of-view. It was a great chance to learn from him and his team out there.
“Anthony Seibold is the head coach over there and he has a reputation for being culture-driven, which is something we’re working very hard to develop at Cardiff Blues.
“Both from an S&C and rugby perspective, I was really keen to learn from that and what’s interesting is that around 60 per cent of their squad are under-23, with a large proportion of them being under-21. There is a lot of similarities between the squads in that sense.
“We’ve been able to bring quite a lot of those stuff back and implement them into our programme.
“It’s an opportunity to experience a different sport, and the Broncos are well-known for their set-up, and they’re leaders within their sport. There’s some exceptional talent in there with a cracking coaching team, and within the next couple of years you know that they will bounce back to the top of the NRL where they deserve to be.
“Similar to us, they focus a lot on home-grown talent, they have a lot of youngsters coming through and they work a lot on the leadership side of it, with those youngsters stepping up into those leadership roles.
“Physically, it was impressive to see the calibre of athletes they have out there, and we’ve already implemented stuff like the close-contact, grappling work during pre-season, and the importance of that has been reinforced after seeing those boys’ work in that area.
“There’s always opportunities to learn from others, who might be more experienced or might have worked in a different type of sport or environment. There’s a real benefit to that.
“Through the Blues and the Welsh Rugby Union, they’re helping to develop us as coaches by handing these opportunities to us. I also went over to Las Vegas last year to be part of the Leaders in Sports conference, where we spent a few days at the UFC High Performance Centre, which again was good to see how we could borrow some practice from different sports, whether that’s on or off the training pitch."
Finally, Duane Goodfield also linked up with a familiar face as he travelled to Edinburgh to visit former head coach, Danny Wilson, who now plies his trade with the Scottish national side.
Deep into their preparations for the upcoming Rugby World Cup in Japan, Goodfield believes the experience was highly beneficial, especially with World Rugby’s latest laws around the scrum.
Goodfield added: “We had a de-load week recently and I saw it as a great opportunity to get away. I spoke to Danny Wilson who invited me up to Edinburgh for three days to witness the Scotland national team’s set-up as they prepare for the Rugby World Cup.
“It was a really good insight into their preparations, and I picked up some really good stuff from that.
“They had some units sessions up there, where they worked with the scrum, and it was really interesting to see how they were dealing with the new laws in the scrum. There won’t be massive. changes, but it looks from the Rugby Championship recently that the referees will have more empathy for the scrum.
“It will take some time to get used to, but overall it looks like a real positive change.
“We have a really good support network from Dan Clements and Kevin Bowering from the Welsh Rugby Union, who we work closely with, and that relationship has been invaluable.
“To have these opportunities to experience an international side prepare for a huge World Cup was invaluable for myself, and I had really good learning from it to bring back into the Cardiff Blues camp. It’s been a good off-season for all of our personal developments and we’re all working hard to provide a real quality service for our players.”