As a high performance rugby coach, it’s your job to challenge players and encourage them to operate outside of their comfort zone. And when it comes to Louise Dalgliesh, no-one can accuse the Scot of not practicing what she preaches.
Shortly after reaching her milestone 40th birthday, Dalgliesh took the plunge and accepted an opportunity to become the backs and skills coach of the Sakura 15s team. It meant moving to the other side of the world to a country where she barely knew anybody and didn’t speak the language.
In her younger years, moving from the picturesque Borders and the familiar surroundings of Hawick to study Physical Education at Edinburgh University was seen as a big move. But this was a different level altogether.
“When discussions started, there was almost a little bit of me thinking that this is a brilliant opportunity but I am not sure it can happen,” she said.
“It was definitely quite a scary thought, it’s that taking yourself away from your comfort zone.
“I had essentially grown up in Scotland and worked and lived in Scotland right through my whole life, so to make a decision to move to another country towards the end of a global pandemic probably added an extra level of nervousness.
“But as much as there were times it was nerve-racking and there were going to be things that were very different about life, it was far too good an opportunity for me to just take a deep breath and make the step.
“Opportunities like this don’t come up that often and with the way that things have come together, I am absolutely delighted.
“It is brilliant to test myself in a full-time environment and be part of a programme that is really growing and moving forward.”
So how did it all come about?
“I met Lesley McKenzie, the Japan head coach, in Stellenbosch in 2019 when I was across for the World Rugby High Performance Academy and there have been various other online academy sessions and further discussions since then and that connection has stayed.”
At that stage, the former Scotland international was one year out of the teaching profession and working as a full-time employee of the Scottish Rugby Union as a Regional Manager in the rugby development team, which included a role as assistant coach of the Scottish Futures U18 group.
As a former teacher and age-grade coach, Dalgliesh is well versed in player development and how to get her message across.
Six weeks into her job, things are going well. Even with the language barrier.
“The skill level of the players is really high. A lot of them have spent development time coming through sevens in their clubs and other environments,” she said.
“With their willingness to learn and willingness to work at things, already the buy-in from the players is so strong. In addition to that, it is still quite a young squad so the potential for them to grow is massive.”
The numbers game
Dalgliesh won 67 caps for Scotland in an 11-year test career, mostly at scrum-half but she says her experience of playing elsewhere in the back division is helpful as a coach.
“I didn’t last at 15 particularly long, I think it was only for my first two or three caps and then, whether it was through skillset or opportunity, I made that step into nine and transitioned to play scrum-half predominantly for most of my caps with a bit of time where I went into the 10 role.
“Through my university and club days you could probably also add centres to that, and the understanding of the different roles and the pressure they bring and how you relate that to the players and get them to develop their understanding is really important. I think it gives you that appreciation of how players will feel in different areas of the pitch.”
Having twice experienced the Rugby World Cup as a player in 2006 and again in 2010, Dalgliesh is hopeful to add a third tournament to her CV as part of the Japan coaching team.
The pinnacle of the sport
The route to New Zealand for Japan and their Asian rivals has yet to be confirmed amidst the ongoing challenges presented by COVID-19, but that’s not stopping Dalgliesh from doing all she can to get the Sakura 15s prepared for whatever lies ahead.
“The World Cup is the pinnacle of sport so to be part of a management team or squad that can get to that level is something you’d always be immensely proud of,” she said.
“Ultimately, we want to be in the best position possible moving forward to the World Cup.
“The time we get with the players is probably, on average, a week a month. So it is really important that we use that time as well as we can to develop them while also staying in touch with the players and getting them to think about what they are doing when they are not with us and taking ownership of that.”