Steve Walsh, Coach, Harlequins Rugby
How has the 2011 campaign been so far for the Harlequins?
2011 has seen a young side realize some of its potential. Our attacking has improved and the ability to play for a full 80 minutes or rather never say a game is over are a big part of this team now. Up until last week we were only 4 points from a perfect season.
Who have been some of your more standout players this season?
The improvement has been all over the paddock and someone different seems to step up each week. I think this has been something that has helped the team get better and better.
How do you find and acquire talent?
The young talent comes mostly from the colleges that surround us and we’re now seeing the benefits of the time being put into the local high schools. We have a good pool of experienced guys who attract the type of college player who wants to play Div.1.
Can you describe your coaching style – how do you approach your players and how it’s been received?
Rugby is a game, games are played for enjoyment. I’d like to think I coach so guys enjoy all aspects of the game, use the natural talents they’ve got and help them move quickly to a higher skill level so they can enjoy it even more.
What coaches and playing experiences have helped shape your career?
I was lucky enough to start playing at age 5, this opens up the whole world early. My father was a big part, he played at a high level. Was coached by Bob Dwyer at Randwick and played alongside people like the Ella brothers and Russel Fairfax so during these years I was playing with the best rugby club in the world (Randwick) who only played attacking football.
This experience enabled me to move to Rugby League to play with South Sydney which showed me in those days what professional sport was all about. The game has taken me as coach and player to the Outback, France and England and now here, so I’ve been blessed with a lot of great experiences to draw on.
You played rugby for the South Sydney Rabbitohs. First, what is a Rabbitoh? And do you see many differences between the Australian and US rugby styles?
South Sydney was founded in 1908 in the central part of Sydney. The players and locals used to make some money and earn livings catching the rabbits that were plentiful in the area, hence the nickname. I think US rugby is struggling a little to identify it’s own style, there’s been an influx at the international level of foreign coaches and it’s time to appoint an American as the national coach. They certainly like the speed and quick movement that Aussie rugby tries to bring as well as making use of the athletic abilities of its players.
Actor Russell Crowe now owns the Rabbitohs – were you there when he took ownership? Have you spoken to your former teammates about his effect on the team?
I missed Russell Crowe’s administration but coaches and friends I am close to say that he has brought a new professionalism to the club, obviously lifted the profile from the days where it was kicked out of the league. The only thing they’re missing at present are results and titles, but it’s a great club with a fantastic history.
On the US game and “market”, Is the sport growing locally in terms of interest and attendance? How do you get more people interested in the sport?
The game is definitely growing, the college level is the place where gains are being made every day as people come to see what rugby has to offer. When this happens senior level clubs benefit. Attendance has grown a little but in Pittsburgh where there are I think now 4-5 men’s rugby clubs, the competition with other sports is immense.
We need more exposure on many levels. Certainly getting the media more interested is a must as well as somehow informing people what an international sport it is with the vast opportunities it offers those who take part. Locals getting to the national stage is something that always helps but that’s a huge, though not impossible goal.
How does the fan experience differ from other more “traditional” US sports?
This game allows the fan to get much closer to all aspects. You can be near the game as a spectator, see the players close-up, interact with players at every level of the game, friends here in Pittsburgh recently came back from the world cup having met some of the highest profile players in the game. It’s tough to do that in any other sport.
I’m not sure if you follow the NFL, but the NFL is ratcheting down the physical play that occurs in the NFL. Is rugby doing the same, or is that physical nature part of the appeal of the sport that you wouldn’t want to strip away?
There has been some modification over the last couple of years but not to the extent that the physicality of the game has been completely compromised. It’s a great part of the game and an essential part of it also. It is certainly important here in the States as I think the US players like that part of the game and take to it very quickly. Good coaches, and there are many here in the States now, teach technique first which makes the game extremely safe. It’s a physical sport with hitting and speed, take that away and there is no game.
Any last thoughts for readers?
I think there is a great pool of untapped talent here in the USA that rugby must get hold of. If it gets a small part of that talent who knows where the USA could be on the world stage. The sport needs to get around more and see who’s playing where. Our MARFU league is one of the strongest in the country with a great pool of talent but the avenues for that talent to be recognized seem virtually non-existent. This needs remedied.