Former Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt was one of a number of high-profile keynote speakers at a World Rugby-organised workshop in Sydney designed to help targeted participating unions in their preparations for Rugby World Cup 2021.

Schmidt, who recently left his position as World Rugby Director of Rugby and High Performance to return home to New Zealand, spoke about what it takes to create an environment that gets the best out of the players as well as sharing his own experiences from his time with the Ireland men’s national team leading into big tournaments.

Eight head coaches and seven strength and conditioning coaches, representing countries competing at Rugby World Cup 2021, attended the four-day event at Rugby Australia’s headquarters in Sydney.

In addition to Schmidt, they heard from people outside of the sport like Sydney Swans’ (Aussie Rules) General Manager Kate Mahoney, as well as Wallabies assistant coach and former England attack coach, Scott Wisemantel, Wallabies dietician Eliza Freney, ACT Brumbies’ charismatic assistant coach Laurie Fisher, former Wallaby Berrick Barnes and New Zealand’s Chris Pollack, a World Rugby match official consultant.

Helping to close the gap

Delivered as part of World Rugby’s wider strategic goal to improve the competitiveness of the women’s game internationally, the workshop was a resounding success with delegates coming away armed with a wealth of knowledge that they can now incorporate into their campaign plans for New Zealand 2021, and beyond.

“One of the overall aims of the high performance team at World Rugby is to improve the competitiveness of the international game. We are working with the Unions to support them on this going into the Rugby World Cup with the aim of trying to reduce (winning) margins and give everybody what they are looking for in terms of ‘to the wire’ games and a great experience,” explained Nicky Ponsford, World Rugby’s high performance manager of the women’s game.

“We’ve got three pillars in the high performance strategy and one of those is around improving capability and expertise. Supporting the head coaches and the strength and conditioning coaches for targeted unions will hopefully give them the knowledge and the experience they need to prepare the best campaign plan that they possibly can going into the World Cup to support their players.

“We’ve got some really young squads going into the World Cup for the first time and all of this experience that’ they’ll have going into this World Cup will set them up for, hopefully, a really long international career,” she added.

“We’ve got some really exciting things coming up in the women’s game not just the World Cup this year but also starting new global competition WXV in 2023, 2024 and then another World Cup in 2025 so there’s lots coming up really quickly and it is important we get everybody as competitive as possible as quickly as possible. Hopefully, this is the start of that journey.”

Delegates also heard about the specific challenges specifically faced by female athletes and were given advice on how to tailor training and high performance programmes with these considerations in mind.

“The women’s game is becoming more high profile and the challenges facing the women’s game have been in the news,” added Ponsford.

“We want to give all the coaches that are here as good an understanding as possible of working with female teams and try to give them the tools that can help the support their players in the best way possible in whatever capacity that is and creating the right environment that allows the players to be the best version of themselves.”

Willingness to share

Japan’s Leslie McKenzie came to the workshop fresh from an unbeaten tour of Australia. But the Scot is fully aware that you never stop learning as an international head coach, especially with big games against Canada, USA and Italy awaiting them in Pool B at Rugby World Cup 2021.

“To have everyone in the same room and to have some discussions that are really relevant to everybody and to have everybody contributing something from their own experiences has been really warming and really helpful. Everyone has come in with such a great mindset and a willingness to share,” McKenzie said.

“It’s been really cool for me especially on the back of a test series down on the Gold Coast. I’ve been able to gather with some coaches who are in the same phase as we are and reflect on what we have been doing in terms of preparation up until now. There’s lots of areas we can still be learning about and sharing information on.

“In terms of tuning up my vision, my preparations and my planning over the next four months, it’s been so cool. As a head coach you can spend so much time in your own brain and thinking about the way you see things. To get someone else’s perspective – and we’ve had some amazing presenters as well as fellow coaches – how good is that?””

McKenzie will be one of two female head coaches at Rugby World Cup 2021 along with France icon Annick Hayraud. It is World Rugby’s started aim to more than double  that number in time for the next tournament in England in 2025.

Being part 0f a select group of two is not something McKenzie says she dwells on, however, and hopes that one day, gender will no longer be an issue or part of the conversation.

“I’m really aware that I am a providing a role model, and I am visible in that sense,” she said. “But when it comes down to it, I have always just coached alongside other coaches and there’s always been good conversations no matter what your background is because we really care for rugby, so that is not something that sits in my head very much.”

The human touch

For South Africa head coach Stanley Raubenheimer the workshop had added value, not just in a rugby sense but also from a human perspective.

The coaching world is equally tightknit as it is competitive but travel restrictions brought about by COVID-19 meant that the workshop was the first time that some of the coaches had met each other in person.

“I am very happy World Rugby has done this initiative, purely from meeting the coaches first and foremost,” he said.

“I said this morning it would have been very strange to have met each other for the first time at a World Cup. We wouldn’t have had the connection that we’ve built up over the past couple of days. We are building more than just rugby teams, we are building a friendship.”

Given the lack of rugby his team has played over the last two years, Raubenheimer found it reassuring to hear the other coaches thoughts on tournament preparation.

“For us in South Africa, we have been out of the international stage for a couple of years and that leaves you feeling unsure … are we doing the right thing are we are on the right path?

“The sharing of knowledge of other countries and the understanding of their journeys gives you a bit of comfort that you are actually on the right path.

“We are not where the other teams are (in terms of preparation), but at least I don’t need to make the mistakes that they have gone through, I can learn from their mistakes and hopefully that will accelerate our learning.

“The values of rugby football from the early days to where we are now are still very much prevalent in the women’s game, we want to share and we want to compete and afterwards we’ll have a drink together and just chat about what well and what didn’t go so well and where we can learn from each other.

“The only way to grow in the game by sharing and this week has been fantastic for that.”

With games coming thick and fast in-tournament, the physical conditioning of players is crucial to whether a Rugby World Cup campaign is successful or not.

Sylvia Braaten, now in her third year as head of strength and conditioning with USA Rugby, accompanied Women’s Eagles Rob Cain on the trip to Australia and found the experience invaluable.

It’s been a great opportunity to get together with other practitioners and share learnings and best practices and just being able to have your own ideas challenged is always helpful,” Braaten said.

“I think it is incredibly important that both the head coaches and the S&C coaches are aligned – aligned in their messaging and aligned in their language so that we can be better aligned in our delivery in creating an environment that is going to allow our players to play their best game.

“Nick Lumley was an S&C presenter on speed and there were some really clear golden nuggets I could take away from that.”