Monday, February 29, 2016

PRO Rugby: Q&A With Ohio's Paul Barford

Controlling the Controllables: How to Prepare for the Great Unknown
By Henry Best

In a few weeks, players and coaches, many who have never met, will gather for the first time to begin training for the inaugural season of PRO Rugby. For the Ohio team, they will be congregating in a place most, if not all, have never been to before. This is a unique exciting time filled with myriad challenges. We all have tons of questions and I got a chance to ask a few. Paul Barford, head coach of Ohio, was gracious enough to answer them. Here's what he had to say.

On getting the job:

TIAR: What made you apply for the position?

Paul Barford: Initially I was kind of talking about it. I'm in a position where I have a big farm and I was really thinking: well I can't really leave my wife of 32 years and go coach in Ohio for five months. That's not going to work. So, I spoke to her a little bit and she said, “Why don't you do it? It's a great opportunity.” So, I wasn't even sure if the application process had finished. I just called and applied. Then I got a call saying we'd like you to come in and discuss it and I spent many hours with Steve Lewis and with Doug discussing my experience and their plans. I've been around the block for a long time so people know what I do. That's no mystery. I think with some younger coaches out there, it is important to have an older coach who knows many of the players and teams across the country in the ring for the first year, to help consolidate things.  I think that is what they were looking for.

Take the jump to read more.

TIAR: Did the historic nature of Pro Rugby effect your decision to pack up and go?

Paul: Absolutely. One, it's a tremendous opportunity. That opportunity isn't going to come around again to be first on the line to do this. It was sort of scary to think: wow, how are we going to approach this? And I thought: yes, I'd like to do this. I've coached so many teams and so many other coaches with USA Rugby and World Rugby as an educator. I felt maybe it was time I did this.

On the changes in the game:

TIAR: You mentioned you've been around for awhile, with USA Rugby and coaching at Cornell: how has the game evolved since you first started getting involved in your playing days?

Paul: Every aspect has changed. Just the fact that we have professional rugby at all anywhere, let alone in this country, has changed the dynamic. And, in some respects, not in a good way either.

The positives: people are looking after themselves better. The nutrition is better. People are checking on health, concussions, all those kind of things. So, a lot of the medical aspects have improved. But, in some respects the professionalism has taken away some of the fun people had in the game: the camaraderie, the touring, all those aspects. Now, with the media and the multimedia, everything you do wrong is out there immediately. That's one of the biggest changes. You're constantly under scrutiny now with everything you do. That's not to say that fun and games don't still go on. But, certainly with the advent of the professionalism part of that no longer happens. It's not really part of the game, but it is a factor that has affected it.

TIAR: I guess it's sort of a culture change around the sport?

Paul: Rugby has a unique culture which makes it a special sport. The focus on family and camaraderie and meeting teammates across the world, is something that this league will try to maintain in our new professional arena.

As far as the game evolving, it's much faster. In fact, today I was just watching the Ireland game against England and one of the Ireland centres is bigger than Willie John McBride who, in his time, was just about one of the largest people in rugby and he was a lock. So, the collisions are much heavier now just because the people are bigger, stronger, fitter. When I started you could kick the ball directly into touch from anywhere, you could kick the scrum-half's hand at the back of the scrum, all kinds of things are different.

On the present:

TIAR: Has the growth in player size and speed impacted tactically what teams try to do now?

Paul: In some respects, for some people, but tactically each coach has his own idea. That question has been asked: do you go in with a game plan and adapt your players to suit it or to you go with what you've got and then adapt a game plan? I think for this league we want to play a good brand of rugby—entertaining—you know you've got to get fans to come and see it. And it has to be entertaining for the players too. That's not to say we shouldn't keep some of the basics. But, I think we should look to play more like the Super 12 when it started.

Personally, I like to play a fast running game. Attacking, let the players do a lot of the decision making. I don't like to script it very much. That's part of the game. You prepare them best you can. Then just sit back and enjoy the game with them. There's far too many coaches yelling on the sideline trying to change during dynamic play. You know, let the guys play.

TIAR: Rosters haven't been announced yet, but your team is largely going to be a bunch of players who have probably never played together—

Paul: A bunch of players who've never played together and I've never met too.

TIAR: So, how are you going to get that chemistry to a point where the free flowing game is going to work out?

Paul: Our practices are going to be built a lot around passing mini-games. For building coherence of the team: mini-groups for social things—we've got to get to know each other fast. There will be a lot of team building. Maybe something like a ropes course so we can get out there and test ourselves with each other. We have got to become a tight knit unit and be friends as much what we do on the field, and then the team stuff will come along. I don't think we need to be doing lots of line-outs and lots of scrums. We need to do lots of passing, lots of games, just get fluent with each other.
When you go on tour with say the U-18 teams, U-19 teams, high school All-Americans: a lot of those kids don't know each other very well either. But, after a couple of weeks of practices and games they get pretty coherent pretty fast.

On game preparation:

TIAR: Of all the locations for PRO Rugby teams Ohio is going to have the most rain, and in general the worst weather. Is that going to impact your plan going forward or maybe give your team a unique advantage?

Paul: It's not going to change the way we play. It may change the attitude of the teams coming in who live on the west coast and may never play in mud. I'm sure that we will have some kind of home-field advantage with the weather, the mud, whatever. But, I don't know that it will drastically change the way we play. It may not rain at all in the games we play, you know?

Right now it's about controlling the controllables. You control everything that you actually can. Those other things you've just got to leave alone. Weather is one thing that I have absolutely no control over. We'll have a Plan B as far as a game plan. The one thing that would concern me more about the weather is if we have a home game, and it's really bad weather, we won't get people to come watch. The whole point of the league is getting people to watch and just getting rugby out there more.

TIAR: To what extent in preparation for an opponent or within your own team do you utilize film or statistics?

Paul: We'll use quite a bit. I can't tell you how we'll use it. But, we don't have a database of the opposition yet because we haven't played. So for now it will be filming practices: looking to see who's doing work, who's putting out the effort, who's listening. I intend to film everything. When we wake up in the morning and get to practice, our meetings will be filmed, our practices will be filmed, our lunchtimes will be filmed. I want it to be completely open to keep an open record. And then we'll put it out there: this is what goes on at a PRO Rugby team. There's going to be a lot of misconceptions about what we do and how we do it. But, if I put it out there people can see and say: “Oh, you know it's not the NBA, it's not the NFL.” It's the first year and it will be a struggle. You know, this is a new world out there for everybody: players and coaches.

I can tell you that the team we put out there will be the best prepared team we can put out there. We have very good assistant coaches. I think a lot of the players who have played for me in the past would say that I'm a pretty easy guy to get along with. We'll make it fun for these guys. If they have fun and it's not a chore then they'll play better.

On growing the tree:

TIAR: Are you aware of or involved in any plans, long or short term, within PRO Rugby to develop an academy system to feed the league and eventually the national team?

Paul: The national team I have no say in. I don't know what their plans are. For PRO Rugby: we have discussed a feeder system—an academy system. Whether that comes in next year, the year after is not my purveyance. I'd like to have one. I don't know when that will happen, but it has been discussed.
Right now I've kind of built a tree. Let's just take rugby in Ohio. We should be the pinnacle and I'm going to make sure our practices are all open. If anybody from the Crusaders or the Cincinnati Wolfhounds wants to come and watch they're more than welcome. It will be completely open. Hopefully through the high schools and the colleges to us, we can build a good feeder system just through that. Right now, increasing the presence of rugby and helping everyone else in Ohio is probably my first concern.

TIAR: Last question. In terms of your time coaching youth, what have you found to be the hardest part of the game for young players to pick up?

Paul: Tactical awareness. Young guys just haven't played enough rugby. They're a bit naive and one of the problems is that they're spoon-fed everything when they do play: “If you're in this part of the field this is what you do, if you're in that part of the field this is what you do.” Rather than letting them make the decisions themselves. They learn much faster that way. That's the way I coach and some people will disagree with that. But, if you look at Wayne Smith or people like that who coach, their teams have a certain identity.

As you play more games you get them to look at the field differently. Lots and lots of questioning: “What do you see here? This is what I see. Why did you do that?” I think if you give them a bit of free reign and then you question them they learn faster. If you attack it that way rather than going: “When you're on the 22 you do this.”

TIAR: That's all I have. Anything you want to offer in conclusion?

Paul: I think the biggest thing PRO Rugby can offer is a chance to get players immersed in rugby for four or five months. Even if we get it wrong the mere fact that they've been immersed in that situation is going to make them better almost by osmosis. It's also good for the coaches, for a change, to start up the ladder. By that I mean, a lot of us, when we go into coaching we get teams where you've got a big big variety of playing levels. You spend a lot of time trying to teach the lower level to get up to the top level or teaching somebody how to lift or how to pass. I'm hoping I won't have to do that. I'm hoping I can start half way up the ladder and we can build from there.

It also gives all these players an opportunity to test themselves. They will realize that playing Pro Rugby, pro-sports, is not quite what they imagined. It's hard, it's a chore, it's a change of life for them: getting up, playing rugby, got to lunch, playing rugby again, going home, sleeping, getting up and doing it again. It's not TV cameras and sports cars...for the players anyway, maybe for the coaches (laughs).

From my point of view PRO Rugby is out there to develop those players to get them up to the point where they can be looked at by the Eagles and test themselves against teammates worldwide. I'm sure that's their ultimate goal, to get those players to play to the best of their potential. If they make the Eagles fine, but I'd be happy if, when they leave us after five months, they're all playing at a substantially better level than when they arrived.

TIAR: I want to thank Coach Barford for his time and for being so open with us. Paul also mentioned the Ohio team will have players on it with a number of caps and his intention to continue to be open and available to the media. Watch for more from this space in the months to come. This is a very exciting time. We have five teams, five coaches, and pretty soon we're going to have players for all of those teams. Somebody pinch me. Come and watch us grow!

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