Ahead of the final match of their tour of France and England I spent an afternoon with the Canadian Rugby 15’s team and aside from enjoying the time withthem, I learned more about a subject I thoroughly enjoy.
The ethos of a team is always a fascinating subject, as here with the Canadian Rugby team. It’s so easy to be riding high with being the best team in
the world, the best funded and so the list goes on - but you get the picture.
With the Rugby World Cup 15’s tournament in France this August qualifying nations are looking to lift the trophy. Aside from the 6 Nations and Black Ferns
v England series there is very little - and in some cases no Rugby 15’s - played outside of the World Cup, meaning that most teams haven’t played together
for at least two years, sometimes more. There are some special series ahead of the World Cup, but nothing on a regular basis.
So just like most, if not all countries, priority is being given to the Rugby 7’s squad in Canada ahead of its inclusion in the 2016 Rio Olympics. This
then means that any 7’s players are making an additional commitment to play 15’s - and yet so many do and it’s this desire and ethos that in part gives
the team that drive. It’s an extra sacrifice above all else. So given that there are two styles of rugby, that they last played together two years ago
and 15’s isn’t the priority - how does a team like this come together and work together?
The buzz from the team/players in the hotel lobby through to training and in all the conversations I had with players and staff was so positive and with
a real sense of honour at being afforded such an opportunity. “It’s an amazing opportunity..”, “...you feel so privileged...”, “….hearing the anthem
gives us such a powerful emotion...”, “…..deep inside we all love 15’s…..”, are just some of the comments that came through. These are athletes
who love what they are doing and have found a way to connect quickly out of necessity, yes, but also out of a desire for the same things born from their
All of this is driven by coach Francois Ratier, who is a French Canadian by birth but spent many years in France learning his art, finally coming back
to Canada with the men’s U18 squad. His views are very interesting and very clear and a couple of simple things have created a remarkable system and has
instilled an ethos in the team that is rock solid. “We work the same with the women as with the men,” he says very matter-of-factly, which will be news
to many an ear. He doesn’t understand why there would be any difference. “It’s the same game?” With this fundamental in place, his next step was to ask
the team once they assembled, what they wanted the other teams to think of Canada? “We wrote the words down, and these have created the measure that we
check ourselves by now,” he says.
Without wishing to give away their secrets, the interesting thing was none of the words were ‘win’ or ‘winning,’ he laughs when I mention this. When I
press him for a definition, he says “of course we want to win - but that comes from doing the other things.”
Francois such a calm, balanced view of where the team is at and how an international team with all the challenges we have talked about can be built and
motivated, that you can’t but help but be won over. It’s about doing things right by the team, giving them responsibility and having an ethos that the
whole of the team has created - and the other things will come. This is about a team and what they are standing for and measuring themselves against, not
about outside expectations but rather their own - and this is incredibly exciting to watch and have been a part of.
Francois’ style of coaching is different to some - and it places a huge responsibility on the athletes - but in turn, paradoxically, it provides huge
freedom. “I’m not coaching players on the field; I’m coaching them off the field. It’s not PlayStation game (sic). They are on the pitch and they need
to make the decisions,” he says of his view about personal responsibility and ownership as well as his coaching style. “I give the direction and they have
to find the answers, it makes them better,” he explains further.
On the pitch this translates into personal ownership on a higher level. They ask a lot of questions of each other and of themselves - and as he quite
rightly points out, “you don’t need someone yelling at you to catch the ball….you know you didn’t and need to.” His view is that the players need
to talk and answer the questions for themselves. The coaching staff can then help the players fix the problems, making for a more personally responsible
player. He is very clear that athletes know when they haven’t performed and so he works with them from a different place, to assist, provide the vision
and give them the tools (as he calls it) to answer the questions for themselves.
One of the most interesting things for me was his relaxed and open minded approach to mistakes. “I want to encourage them to take risks, to make mistakes
because then you learn and get better. My goal is to make less and less mistakes. It’s a big step for a coach to make in this day and age of a results
driven world, but the interesting thing is that it’s paying dividends. The team is incredibly connected, they are playing good Rugby and they beat France
(who won the 6Nations this year) once on their tour. The individual sense of ownership and responsibility that has been given to them means that on the
field there is less panic and off the field they are pulling in the same direction.
Given the vast distances between players back in Canada they make a huge effort to stay in touch and talk regularly as Kelly Russell, the team captain
commented: “we focus a lot of regular comms, it’s important for all the girls….” She adds “I can’t say enough, how committed and great the girls
are.” This comment not just about the tour, but also of how they have worked to remain connected despite long distances and full time jobs.
This is about athletes who have been given huge responsibility by a coach who believes in them - and this is repaid in total commitment. In addition,
this is manifested in a tangibly positive atmosphere and drives them to want to stay in contact outside of their ‘contracted’ times because they ‘have
something’ and they want it to grow and develop. This is a team marching to the beat of a different drum.