No matter the sport, a head coach leaving in midseason – under any circumstance – can quite easily have a negative effect on the team left behind.
But don’t try telling that to the Bayside Sharks’ Div. 1 men’s rugby team, who have not only survived the earlier-than-expected departure of former head coach Pete Clifford, but are, in fact, thriving under a new coaching setup that Bayside’s longtime director of rugby Andy Blackburn says is more common in Europe than North America.
It’s a system that is based on specialization and teamwork, Blackburn explains. At the top, as the de facto “head coach” is Blackburn who, is in charge of “big picture planning” such as roster construction, game-planning, video analysis and player recruitment. But while he might be at the top of the Bayside hierarchy, on game days, the on-field decisions are made by Sam Knights, a 24-year-old player/coach whom Blackburn calls “probably the best coach I’ve coached with in Canada.”
“On (game days), Sam is the main guy, and it’s been seamless, going from Pete to him,” Blackburn said.
“In the U.K., this is kind of the model now – a group of coaches who work together. It’s not really what we’re used to in Canada, but… the days of one head coach are over.”
As well, the Sharks now employ a team of coaches focused on specific areas of the game.
“We have an attack coach, a scrum coach… we’re looking to bring in a forwards coach,” said Blackburn of the transition, which took place in the fall as the Sharks were in the midst of the first half of the B.C. Div. 1 rugby season.
Among the new specialty coaches who’ve been brought in to lend a hand is Angel Cividanes, a former head coach of the top men’s squad – he coached the Sharks in 2013. During the fall season – which ended in mid-December – Cividanes spent a few practice sessions working with Bayside’s players, and it’s hoped he’ll do the same when the second half of the season kicks off later this month.
“Angel is a probably the number-one scrum coach in Canada,” Blackburn said.
The new coaching group replaces Clifford, a former top player with Bayside the last time the team played at the premier level. Clifford, originally from England, moved from player to coach a few seasons ago, but has now left Canada to pursue other opportunities, Blackburn said.
“Pete has moved on with his life, but he did a great job for us and it’s unfortunate he had to leave,” he said.
“But we’re very fortunate to have Sam here. He’s still very young, but his father is a career coach in the U.K., and (Sam) has coached at the Bath professional academy. We’re lucky to have him.”
Not only will the Sharks’ top men’s side have its new coaching group in place when they next hit the field, Jan. 27 against the Brit Lions Rugby Club, but Blackburn expects a handful of new players to be on the pitch, as well – perhaps as many as 10.
About half the new faces are, in reality, familiar ones, as a half-dozen or so former players are expected to return to the team after taking some time off for injury or personal reasons, Blackburn explained, while another four or five players will join the program from overseas.
“We’ll mix in our (new players) with the homegrown ones. I think it’ll really ramp up the intensity of our practices as well as our games.”
Under Clifford, the Sharks had undergone something of a youth movement this year, with a handful of teenagers and players in their early-20s on the roster, and they found success in the early stages of the season, going undefeated through the first month. They finished the first-half schedule with a 4-2-2 record (win-loss-tie), which was good enough for third place. Their most recent game, in mid-December, was a 27-12 win over Abbotsford.
Blackburn said they’ll be looking to build on that success, and if they’re to continue finding their way into the win column, it will likely be as a result of defence.
“We have, by far, the best defensive record in the league, and (against) the league champions, the Surrey Beavers… we’ve tied them and then only lost by five, so we probably have the best record against them out of anybody over the last two seasons,” he said.
And while the team has made great strides recently under whichever coach is calling the shots, Blackburn preached patience as the young squad grows into what team brass hope will become a perennial contender for provincial titles down the road.
“The goal is to just get as many wins as possible, and keep pushing for the highest spot we can get… Also, we want to keep playing a style of rugby that everyone has bought into – both players and coaches. And that style of rugby will ultimately get us the wins,” he said.
“And if those wins come this year, then great, but if not, we’re confident they’ll come next year and the year after.”