A Rebel with a cause

By Ryan Cook

Prior to this week, my rugby background included a few games of touch at break time, cheering on the Red school heroes from the sideline, channel flicking through some highlights and passing comments from the couch. I was in for a perspective shift as I joined the Melbourne Rebels on an all access pass for a week prior to their game against the Stormers at Newlands. I have always been fascinated about the workings of high performance environments across sports and industries and this experience was an eye opener into the culture and operations of one of Australia’s up and coming rugby franchises.

I was connected with Rebels Head Coach Dave Wessels through a mutual friend and colleague Tom Dawson Squibb who has worked extensively with both of us personally and in our professional environments. Dave’s coaching journey began at Rondebosch Boys High School in Cape Town whilst consulting to the Stormers defense. He was appointed as assistant coach of his alma mater, UCT, under Kevin Foote from 2009 to 2011 during their meteoric rise to the title of the Varsity Cup. Dave’s journey continued under Jake White at the Brumbies in Australia as a defensive consultant catapulting him to the assistant post at the Western Force, where after 3 years, he was appointed Head Coach. Following the exclusion of the Force from Super Rugby, Dave was appointed Coach of the Melbourne Rebels.

This background is relevant to understand a few initial observations about the environment. Firstly, it is distinctly apparent that he has “cut his teeth” in the game of rugby and coaching from a young age, the fertile grounds on which many world class coaches across sports have started. Secondly, the relationship he shares with his management staff is deep. Not only have they already walked a road together which has strengthened the bond, but there is genuine respect, care and trust across the coaching group. Remarkably, during my time with the team, not once did Dave walk through a door or get off a bus without thanking the person responsible.

My first contact with the team was to sit in on the review of the game against the Bulls which happened the previous week. I’m in over my head! The players and coaches are speaking a language which resembles English, but one that is quite clearly unique and authentic to this environment. The fluency which these words flow off the tongue is followed by the studious nods of heads and pens on paper as the players engage in the detail of the previous match reflecting and drawing out the learnings supplemented by visual representations on the big screen. This I didn’t expect, these players are far from rugby brutes, they are rugby smarts discussing the intricacies of formations and phases – something which I would gain a keen appreciation for as the week went on.

Monday morning meetings complete and we head off to the training ground, I am looking forward to seeing some of these moves in action. To my surprise, these will not be “run” today, but rather “walked” as part of a team clarity session for the week ahead. All calls, set plays and formations are explained, taught, coached and demonstrated by a coaching staff that have their finger on the pulse of detail. In a game where a metre can mean the difference between a game winning try, this is necessary.

Day two, I am assured some action packed training and at first glance the energy displayed by the coaching group has ramped up a few notches as an extensive warm up begins. Next, Cameras on, Drones raised and away we go! For the next 60 minutes I am treated to what can only be described as a choreography of practice. Specific drills followed by unstructured play, one after the next interspersed with brief key coaching points and an intensity which I have not seen in another sporting environment. Every second of the practice is being accounted for by Will Markwick, the progressive Head of Performance, and is being communicated like a symphonic conductor via ear pieces to all the coaches. The players respond with corresponding effort and skill as this flow of energy permeates everyone at the facility.

As impressive as this practice was to witness, the post practice huddle is what really stands out! Local kids from the community have come to watch the training and are invited into the circle to share in the review of the training. What an experience that must be for these 10 year olds looking up to their heroes. However impressive, it is the behaviour which takes place after this though which catches my eye. Throughout the practice, some student athletes from UCT Ikey Tigers have been running drills with the team, tackling like men possessed and adding competition to the play. Every one of these players is thanked individually by each player and coach for their contribution and are welcomed back for tomorrows session. Coming from a sport in which thrower’s and net bowler’s contribution are so often overlooked this is a note to self.

Upon arrival at the hotel the next day, I am greeted by a sight that I have very rarely seen in a team room. Individual players viewing footage on laptop screens, huddles of positional players drawing out session plans, coaches with computers having “one on ones” with specific players using footage of practice the previous day. This is the planning being done for this afternoon’s sessions. The team has decided on the practice drills to be done today, it seems this phase of preparation for the game on Friday is player-lead. In this small space it is apparent to see the connectedness of the group, it seems all players have the buy in to the system of play and they need to. Rugby is such an integrated sport between backs and forwards, wings and props. I was first exposed to a concept a while back of “Total Football” which is a strategy which revolutionalised soccer in the 1970s which relies on possession of the ball where players have no definite position whilst working as a unit on defense and attack. Easily summed up by Johan Cryuff “Everyone could play everywhere”. These peer learning sessions were certainly what I had in mind.

Another session of high intensity training followed and was supplemented with skill specific practice. The players really do go to pain staking lengths to hone their craft, this is often the element which the public don’t see. The extra time and detail taken to fine tune their preparation and accuracy doesn’t always relate into performance on match day but these professionals stick to their processes with high standards.

The following day a detour was taken by the bus which arrived at UCT rugby club for a team session which allowed a window into the culture of this team. With both Dave and Kevin’s roots in the soil at UCT this provided an opportunity for both players and coaches to share in some past, present and future. The genuine care for each other was palpable in the room and no doubt there is a connection with this group far deeper than the game of rugby. A Captain’s run at Newlands and we are all set to go for the fixture of the week.

Match day! A different feel in the camp. The tone of the day seems to be focused and controlled. With a long wait until the afternoon kick off, a few “walk-throughs” and bit of light hearted ball drills take place in a conference hall down the road from the hotel. This gives me an opportunity to pick the brain of the coaches and enter into discussing their philosophies a bit deeper, this is fascinating. Throughout the week, all the coaches have been approachable, curious and welcoming showing that they are not only preaching development but living it themselves.

Warm ups complete and it is time for the main event! Entering the coaches’ box, I am amazed to see the level of technology used in assessing games in real time and the productive conversations which happen between the box and bench. There is an intensity and clarity to these exchanges. The Rebels are behind on the scoreboard throughout much of the game. Notably, Dave is solutions focused and proactive in his approach with suggestions from analysts and assistant coaches. There is no doubt he knows what is like to be advising from the chair next to him and shows an empathy towards his support staff.

Unfortunately, despite great effort, the Rebels end on the losing end against the home side. The mood is one of disappointment and introspection. Upon reflection, it seems the execution on the day was not as accurate as is capable from this group. A few critical errors at important moments in the game wrestled the momentum away on too many occasions. The somber emotions are lifted by keeping an eye on improvement and moving forward in the competition as well as not passing over celebrations of milestones and performances of specific individuals. Thanks are also given to those from the security personnel to the physios for their contribution throughout the week with great gratitude.

It must be said that I for one have gained an incredible appreciation for the ability and skills of the players, not to mention what their bodies go through week in and week out. Their professionalism was outstanding from the team room to the practice field. The way in which they treat their craft, their staff and little known outsiders such as myself show that these men are more than just great rugby players.

As for the staff, this experience has raised the bar in terms of cohesion, communication and excellence from the “team of teams”. Great things can be accomplished when everyone chips “all-in” to a common cause and does their jobs with pride. There is no doubt they will be looking for areas of improvement for the players this week, but would have also taken some lessons on board themselves. Relationships in this organization are of utmost importance and they will grow stronger through experiences such as the week in Cape Town. As the season rolls on, I wish this group all the best and thank them for opening up their sacred circle and including me on their re-love-ution.