'Coaches coach, players play'
July 18, 2014
Laurie Fisher will move to the Aviva Premiership to coach Gloucester this season © Getty Images
We don't always get to hear much about our top-level coaches these days, certainly not much beyond the usual 'this bloke is rubbish'/'this bloke's a genius' debate, but often there are stories and insight to be provided that goes well beyond the standard clichés.
In the latest of our series profiling the best clipboard-holders in the game, ESPNscrum speaks to Brumbies director of rugby Laurie Fisher.
Recently announced as head coach for Aviva Premiership club Gloucester, Fisher spoke openly on a number of topics, including the timing of the Gloucester move and his time at the Brumbies, as well as providing revealing thoughts on the heavy player involvement back during the glory days of the Brumbies.
ESPNscrum: Your two stints at the Brumbies - would you say they've been drastically different, and can you even compare them?
Laurie Fisher: Well you can always compare them, because rugby's rugby, but they've certainly been very different.
The experience of European rugby changes your mindset significantly, and while Super Rugby is often talked about as "rugby lite" sometimes - shift the ball, entertainment, etc, etc - the essence of the game is still about quality set-piece, it's about physicality, and I'm not sure that Australian sides - although we won Super Rugby Championships - were always on that page.
It was always about being smarter than opposition sides, and we still need to retain that in terms of how we play, but I think the game demands that you match them physically, you match them technically in the tight areas and I think I've grown [as a coach] in that area, and brought that back [to the Brumbies, from Munster, where Fisher was forwards coach from 2009-2011], where we wouldn't be the biggest side, we wouldn't be the strongest side, but I think we can match most sides physically because of the way we play.
Laurie Fisher has incredible respect for Stephen Larkham © Getty Images
ESPNscrum: Tell us about coming back from Munster to coach under Jake White; you've told me in the past that he never told you what he wanted, but he told you what he expected. Did you enjoy the experience?
Laurie Fisher: It was good, because Jake has a style of play that he wants his sides to play so he sets the parameters, and how you develop [strategies and game plans] within that becomes the coaches' responsibility. He didn't make our lineout, or our scrum, or our breakdown any better, but he said 'this is how we play', 'this is what we do at this end', 'this is what we're going to do down there', 'we want to do more of this, less of that', and you go out and coach it.
I enjoyed working under him. It's a different perspective, and I think he's really good with people, really good at getting everyone on the same page, really good at sending a message, a really good selector, really good at knowing what he wanted, and that's something that as a developing coach, you know, you can sometimes experiment or shift from one thing to another, whereas he was really clear in his mind about the style of football he wanted to play, and whether you agree or disagree it doesn't matter; the big part of the battle is being clear. That way the players know what's expected, staff know what's expected, and I think it makes the job a whole lot easier.
ESPNscrum: How has this year worked with Stephen Larkham, then, having both experienced that as White's assistants?
Laurie Fisher: Coaching-wise, it hasn't changed that dramatically. 'Bernie' is still doing what he did last year; I'm doing what I did last year. We brought a defence coach in this year [Dan McKellar] to do some work in that area. So our on-field work hasn't changed dramatically.
It's more the sharing of off-field responsibilities. Stevie is more on the rugby side of things - the game-day messages, the team meetings, all those sort of things - whereas most of my additional work is away from the rugby; staffing and pathways, and all that. We just divided it up - he selects the backs, I select the forwards - but we work almost exactly the same as we have done in the previous two years.
ESPNscrum: And how easy - or difficult, perhaps - has it been to coach alongside an ex-player who you coached for a number of years?
Laurie Fisher: Really easy. I've got incredible respect for him as a player, and he's been coaching for a few years where I've been coaching 20-odd years. Maybe I've got the leg-up in the coaching stakes, but he was a better player than I ever dreamt of being, so maybe that balances out somewhere!
Stevie's taken to it like a duck to water, but he's learned a lot from his first year, I'll guarantee it, and off a lot of people. But I've really enjoyed the experience of working with one of the world's great rugby players on a coaching level; it's been fantastic for me. And I'm sure he's enjoyed the experience of working with somebody who's been a career coach over a long period of time.
ESPNscrum: When you were the head coach and Stephen Larkham was still playing, did you have a similar relationship to what you have now in how you planned for games tactically:
Laurie Fisher: Oh no, very different. Back in the day, there was ostensibly more player involvement in game planning; I don't know that it ever worked that efficiently, to be honest. But realistically now, it's the coaching staff that set the tone; the coaching staff that sets the game plan, and it's the coaching staff that then talks to the players about what we're doing and why we're doing it.
And we'll ask if they've got little things to add to that, but we'll do the off-field work, and they produce on the field. That's the way it should work.
I've never felt comfortable in players coming to a meeting on a Monday morning and talking about the opposition coming up on the Saturday - like, where's the prep being? From the last time we played them? From the year before? From the year before that? And that's where we got to.
I felt that a lot of our information, years ago, was what happened in the past whereas we wanted to know what was happening now.
I really prefer the system we've got now, and the coaches work hard to understand what we're good at, to understand what the opposition might throw at us, and what might work on any given day. And then to get buy-in from the players, for them to trust us, that what we're delivering to them is going to get a result.
We've worked hard to get that buy-in over that initial period, and I think there's a lot of trust between the players and the coaching staff in how that work and how that game-planning is done.
ESPNscrum: And do you think that's an evolution of the modern game, or an evolution of modern coaching, that definite, clear message from coaches to players?
Laurie Fisher: I can't speak for other teams; I just know what works well here. I was never comfortable that players were able to put the time in. I've got to trust that a player will go out there and do the job he's been asked to do; he needs to trust me and the other guys that that we've looked at enough footy and we've set up things that we think will work in the right circumstances, and that way, we coach; they play. And I think that's the way it's supposed to be.
ESPNscrum: You obviously feel like the Brumbies are in good hands next year, and did that play a part in you deciding to move on?
Laurie Fisher: No, it didn't play any part in my decision.
Yes, I think they're in good hands, and again, I think Stevie will grow even further as a head coach. Dan McKellar, he'll be second year at this level, and he's an excellent coach, and they'll obviously get a third coach in.
We've got a great new facility here [the Brumbies have just moved into their brand new, $A16 million headquarters and training facility at the University of Canberra], we've got good staff, we've been able to re-sign all of these Wallabies who have made their name over the last few years through our system here, so all that is set up for the organisation and the team to progress.
Obviously, the big challenge is going to be the financial challenges that I think rugby as a whole in the southern hemisphere are facing - and particularly Australia - so that's massive; about memberships, crowds, sponsorships and all that to support a high-performance program. That doesn't come cheap.
I think on the rugby side, don't get me wrong, I think there's a number of areas where we can get better to be truly world class in all aspects of the program, we've got huge scope for improvement, and I think that's exciting for the organisation, but we got a staff and a group of players who understand there's room for improvement, and they just need to set about finding how that will work.
ESPNscrum: We've spoken previously about how much of coaching revolves around timing, and you've even suggested that your chance to coach the Wallabies might have passed you, but the timing of the Gloucester role - did it find you, or did you find it?
Laurie Fisher: No, I wasn't looking for anything at all. I still had another to run on my contract here, and I just got a phone call about an opportunity out of the blue. I definitely wasn't chasing an opportunity; I was more than happy with what I was doing here.
But that said, you're in the coaching game for a period of time. European rugby is on a high. The English premiership is improving all the time, it's well resourced, and it's fantastically supported. A big new TV deal with BT; it's a really exciting opportunity.
Gloucester's a traditional club of 140 years' history; they've been successful, but currently are not. So there's an opportunity to hopefully make a difference there. The Brumbies would've offered me another two years, but then in three years' time, what do you do then? Is there another offer coming, at age 59, or are people starting to say "no, there's younger guys around"?
Jonny May is among the players who will come under Laurie Fisher's coaching at Gloucester Rugby © Getty Images
So you start to consider all of those things. [The Gloucester move] is a lifetime opportunity, it's a lifestyle opportunity, it's a chance to test yourself in another coaching environment, in a great rugby environment at a wonderfully traditional club.
My reputation's good at the moment; reputations come and go. And I mean 'cash in on your reputation' not in terms of cash, but rather when your reputation is on the way up or good, you get offers. I could say "oh no, I'm really comfortable with what I'm doing", but I know when I went overseas - not by my own volition - the first time (Fisher's Brumbies contract wasn't renewed at the end of 2008), and then having gone, I felt I should have gone earlier because of the enjoyment and of the learning experience and of the life experience I had [at Munster].
So when you get the opportunity, do you say "I'm comfy here, I'll wait another couple of years", or do you just say, "Look, I'm just going to have a crack"?
ESPNscrum: Is there similarities between where Gloucester are now, and where the Brumbies were in late 2011 when you came back?
Laurie Fisher: There's definitely that similarity in that both sides who have been traditionally good in their competitions have had a couple of poor years.
Gloucester have recruited well [they announced the signing of Wales utility back James Hook just before Fisher's signing, to go with some other useful additions including John Afoa, Richard Hibbard and Greig Laidlaw], whereas when we came back to the Brumbies, we got rid of a lot of Internationals and recruited some unknowns.
So it's different there, in that we were able to honestly rebuild from the ground up here. We had three international players [at the time], so it was very easy if we were clear and decisive about the way we wanted to play, that everybody jumped on board.
It won't be exactly the same over there; you've got a lot of guys who have played a lot of Test match rugby, so it will be a different dynamic. That said, if you haven't been successful, something's got to change.
ESPNscrum: In this series of profiles, I've asked Dave Rennie and Michael Foley about how they go about assembling coaching panels. How will you go walking into a set-up at Gloucester where appointments were made and things have been set up before you were signed?
Laurie Fisher: As head coach, all I've got to worry about is the rugby team performing. There's a director of rugby [Irishman David Humphreys left Ulster to join Gloucester a few weeks before Fisher was announced] who will look after staff and contracting, etc, so my job is to ensure that first XV is performing week in, week out.
So what I've got to do is be very clear in my mind about what I want. And then it's up to the other guys to fit in with that. I can't be, "you do your thing, and you do your bit" and hopefully ... and rugby's not that different - I'd suggest that in 80% of the things we talk about with the attack coach and the defence coach that we'd be on the same page. There will be differences, and there will be some robust discussion, but in the end, what I've learned is that if I believe that's the way it should be done, then that's the way it should be done. I can't waver, I can't say, "yeah, we'll do a bit of this, and a bit that" - I've done that [before].
Now I know what I want, I know what works for me in a football team, which is not to say that I'm not open to new ideas or new ways of doing things, but it has to fit in with the framework. So I go over there - and this is one thing I learnt from Jake - and be really clear in my mind about what I must have in the rugby program, and there's other things that are negotiable. But I've got to be clear on the must-haves.
ESPNscrum: I'm wondering about coaching trends and game trends; what's changed in the game and the way you coach since you've come back from Munster?
Laurie Fisher: Look, there's still so many ways to play the game, and that's the beauty of the game. You look at where the Waratahs have gone this year with the ball-in-hand game, and power carry with speed; it will be interesting to see where the season ends up. If you have a look at the six teams who are still alive, they're all very different. They all have their own styles.
Where has rugby got any different? The athletes are certainly getting better all the time. You just pick the way you want to play, or you've got to have more than one way. You've got to have a good solid pack of forwards, a good set piece, and skill and pace in the backline. How you want to put that together just depends on the cattle you've got.
The Waratahs have got a very, very low kicking game but generally on power carry, on offload, on 10-12 ... and we're different, the Crusaders are different. It's a difficult one; I'm not really one for leading the game trends, I just want to know what works and do it.
ESPNscrum: A lot of top-level coaches these days are ex-teachers; it just seems to be an easy transition from teaching into coaching?
Laurie Fisher: Well coaching is teaching. Teaching provides you with the skill set that I think is a really good fit for coaching. It's the capacity to organise, it's the ability to keep people interested, on topic, enjoying what they do, and it's about finding ways to send the same message across in new ways ...
It can be 'Groundhog Day', you don't want to be coming in doing the same thing every day because you will become stale very quickly. So, yeah, I think the skills of teaching are very pertinent to being a good rugby coach. That doesn't mean that all teachers are coaches, nor are all coaches teachers, but when I reflect back on my teaching days, it is all about coaching.
Laurie Fisher says Paul O'Connell is the "most influential player on the park in any team I've been involved in" © PA
ESPNscrum: How did you get into coaching? I know you played to a decent level in Brisbane and Canberra yourself, so did coaching just follow playing for you?
Laurie Fisher: It did. I finished playing in 1992, and when you played at club level for a long time, there's an expectation that you'll stay involved with the club.
So I coached second grade my first year out, and then first grade the next year here at 'Uni' [ANU, when they were a standalone club in ACT rugby]. And then the game went pro in 1996 and I was coaching first grade, and I'm thinking around about '99 or 2000, "geez, the game's moving rapidly", like from where it was in '95 to where it was in '99.
I felt like I was good at coaching, I was comfortable coaching at club level, we went from a Uni side who were almost never in the finals to in the finals three years in a row with the same players. And I thought, "Do I want to get on board?" I had a good job at the AIS, and then thought I'd take a risk.
The Brumbies Academy job came up; applied for that, got that, and then moved rapidly from there. Academy coach then Canberra Vikings in the Queensland comp [winning three premierships in a row from 2001-2003]; I was doing the Brumby Runners in '98 and '99 while I was coaching club rugby anyway, and it all moved quickly from there.
[Fisher coached the Australia Under 21 team in 2003 and 2004, became Brumbies forwards coach under David Nucifora in 2004, ascended to the head coach role in 2005 to 2008, had three seasons as forwards coach with Munster in Ireland, and then returned to the Brumbies to join Jake White's rebuilding program.)
ESPNscrum: To finish, the same question I've put to both Dave and Michael - who's been the best player you've coached?
Laurie Fisher: Look, I've coached a number of good players; it all depends on what you definition of good and great players is.
If I was saying it was their influence on the team, then it's [Munster, Ireland and British & Irish Lions lock] Paul O'Connell, and by a long way. He is the most influential player on the park in any team I've been involved in. Just outstanding, because he always played to a level, and again, not the greatest player that's ever lived, but his influence on the psyche of a team, the work rate of a team; he is integral to any team he plays in performing.
In terms of skilful players, again, Stevie Larkham was great - not that I did any coaching with the backs! - But he was the sort of guy that when he was training, he made training, he put pace on the game. He made you feel as though you could coach, because everything ran smoothly when he was running around out there.
You still see it now when he's out there [coaching], quality player, communicating, great skill set. You wanted pace and tempo and he just brought that to the game.
George Smith was more of a natural; he just had great natural instincts. What I liked about Georgie is that you don't get the impression that he's working hard on his game, but he is. You don't get the impression that he's doing a lot of work off the field, but you know that because you just see a little change in tactics from year to year or week to week, that he's thought about his game, and he's just got to make a subtle little change.
I wasn't at all surprised [he played so well on returning to the Brumbies in 2013], because I'd seen him two years before, he played for Toulon against [Munster] in a Heineken Cup game and he was the player of the match; he was absolutely outstanding.
Listen to the full audio of this interview at www.bmcsport.com.au. In the audio clip, you'll hear extended answers to a number of these questions, as well as other questions about the challenge of moving to the other side of the world and the impact on two 18 year-old kids who have just left school; the Reds' stats of 2011 that worked for the Brumbies on Fisher's return; the impact of improved fitness in the Waratahs this season; the transition from teaching to coaching, and why it's a good background for a rugby coach, and some extra thoughts on some other great players he coached.
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