Following on from our series of articles produced by Cambridge Director of Rugby Richie Williams, Leicester Lions’ Gareth Collins is next to pen his journey in the game as he looks ahead to another National Two South campaign with the Midlands club.
In his final blog for ncarugby.com, Gareth discusses why he moved into coaching plus, he talks about a challenging but enjoyable first year in charge of the Lions….
Every playing career has to end at some point, but mine certainly ended earlier than expected.
In 2013, I was going in to my 12th consecutive season in the National Leagues and at 29 years old, I hadn’t planned for it to be my last. Unfortunately, I tore my ACL in a pre-season game and faced a season out following surgery.
I was approached by Melton Mowbray RFC, who were facing relegation to Level 8 in the Midlands division, with a head coach opportunity. I originally thought that I would coach Melton for the season and then go back to Lions to finish my playing career. That soon changed when I got to Melton, though.
The club had slid from Level 6 and were looking to get back to that level. I had a clear goal and thankfully I had a playing group, brought together by the captain Marcus Badham, that were fully behind it. Thankfully we succeeded in getting the club back to Level 6 following two promotions in the first two seasons and I ended up staying at the club for five years.
I had some great times at Melton and I owe a lot to the club for my progression in coaching. They took a chance on me as a young coach with little experience or qualification. The transition wasn’t easy but I couldn’t have asked for better support.
🟪🦁 Season Review: @leicesterlions1
— NCA Rugby (@nca_rugby) May 15, 2020
I was so happy to have repaid the club by winning the County Cup twice during my tenure, something that Melton hadn’t done previously in its 100-year history. Beating Hinckley at Welford Road, who had just earned promotion to the National Leagues [level 4], when we were in Level 7, definitely ranks as one of the best experiences I’ve had as a player or coach. The fact it was achieved with a group that were all from Melton (except myself), and had grown up playing for the junior sides, made it even sweeter. It was the first time I really realised what can be achieved by investing in your own players and creating a culture that players want to be a part of.
When the opportunity arose to return to Lions last season it was just something I couldn’t turn down. I felt the time was right for me as coach, and the chance to lead the club that I had so many fond memories of as a player was a dream come true.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous, though. At 35, I was still a pretty young and inexperienced coach compared with most of the coaches in Nat 2. Lions had also spent 15 consecutive seasons in Nat 2 since being promoted and I certainly didn’t want to be the first coach to get the club relegated! To make things worse I then I got the ‘news’ that we were being transferred to National Two South.
Having played in the North for so long, I felt I knew that league well – the places we were to travel to, the kind of rugby the sides tended to play, but the South was unknown territory. However, the more that people spoke about all the ‘north’ sides that had been relegated following a level transfer – Hinckley, Birmingham Solihull, Broadstreet – I actually felt some pressure being relieved.
There was an expectation amongst those that I spoke to, and the media, that we would get relegated. We were able to use this as a motivator to prove people wrong and it certainly helped us focus and work hard as a group.
We had a fantastic pre-season focusing on building a good culture. I brought a number of players back to the club – Shaun Murray, Rhod McNaughton, Luke Veebel, Drew Rudkin – who I knew would help me create the right environment. Having Jason Aldwinckle, who I owe much of my rugby knowledge to, and Seko Sio, who combined coaching with his playing commitments at Nottingham, helped establish a quality training environment.
One of the first things I did was to create a larger squad and introduce an ‘A team’. I’m a firm believer in competition within training to get the best out of everyone, but this is very difficult at our level, especially on a modest budget like ours. The Lions squad I inherited certainly didn’t have this. I therefore introduced a development squad – consisting of young, local players – who would train with the senior squad, and combine to play as the ‘A team’. Going into the season, I felt we had everything in place.
The wait is over!!
The new National League season is here! All the build-up to the new campaign is below.
— NCA Rugby (@nca_rugby) September 7, 2019
The first game was an eye-opener, though. We knew Tonbridge Juddians were going to be strong, having narrowly missed out on promotion the previous season, but we weren’t ready for that match at all. As a coach, you always look at yourself post-match and the decisions you made in preparation. I felt like I’d let the club down by not preparing the side as well as I could, but thankfully that was the lowest I was to feel all season.
From that moment on we improved dramatically, as both players and coaches. It certainly made me realise the level of analysis and preparation I was going to have to do as a coach. The lessons learnt were quickly put right though. What followed were three successive wins against Old Albanian, Westcliff and Clifton.
We certainly proved that we could compete with the best in the league and one of the most memorable games was beating the eventual league champions, Taunton, in November. In contrast to the Tonbridge game, I felt confident that we had a game plan, and a good enough understanding of the way they played to beat them.
In the very muddy and wet conditions, the defensive performance was outstanding. We had seen the amount of front-foot ball they created and the territory gained by Gary Kingdom’s boot, and we worked hard in preparation to nullify those threats. Thankfully it paid off and Taunton were left kicking a penalty at the death to earn a losing bonus point.
The unexpected curtailing of the season was a real disappointment with a couple of big games to come for us. We had five home games out of the seven remaining fixtures to play and we felt that we could push for a top six finish. The one saving grace on a personal note was that my National Two North try-record was preserved for at least another year as it looked as though Dan Rundle from Stourbridge was on course to break it!
It was a shame we didn’t get the chance to test ourselves again against Tonbridge and having been promoted alongside Taunton, we won’t get that chance next season either. Our goal is to improve on last year’s finish, which is going to be another huge challenge and one that we hope to be even better prepared for whenever that may be.