The story of an open men’s representative side 2014–2016
I’M GOING to give you the inside story of a coaching job I did that wouldn’t necessarily make headlines beyond the locality it concerned. I’d like to think it could be a good coaching case study for aspirant coaches or it at least give an insight into the kind of things that go on in and around these types of things for those who simply love their footy.
It will be in three parts, so keep an eye out on rugbyleaguehub.com for the next two.
The Ipswich Diggers is a representative side of the area of Ipswich in Queensland. They run teams all the way up from juniors (about Under 12s) with the seniors team being the men’s team.
I was made head coach of the seniors in 2014 and stayed in the job for three campaigns. The team was made up of players selected from the local Ipswich A Grade competition and the Ipswich Jets reserve grade side.
All players were paid players at their respective clubs, so in the UK you’d say they were about Championship or League 1 standard and professional.
On May 21 2013, the Queensland Times newspaper (QT) ran the following headline in its sports pages….
“Bomber says Diggers lack pride and passion.”
The story underneath the headline was of a player from an Ipswich Rugby League (IRL) club who had just represented the Ipswich Diggers, the South East Queensland city’s representative team. Quotes such as “not a memory he will savour”, “(a campaign) he’d rather forget” and talk of a return to “the bad old days” of “several years of poor results” after “giving the comp a shake in the last two years” hardly painted a positive picture of the Diggers experience.
And they came just from the pen of the journalist! The player himself was quoted as saying the following…..
“Being a rep side, you’d think you’d enjoy it, but I don’t think there was as much pride in the jersey as there should be.
“When we went out there, it felt more like how good they looked rather than how well they represented Ipswich.
“When you’re representing Ipswich, it should be about the team. But it seemed more about individuals and about getting the free gear.”
“People weren’t putting in.”
There were also ‘shots fired’ at the selection committee.
“It seemed like they were trying to pick a name-based team rather than one based on form.”
The IRL operations manager of the day was given a right to reply in the same publication. He stated that the preparation for the Ipswich Diggers will be ‘reviewed by the Ipswich Rugby League’ but the following caveats were added…
“They’ve had the same preparation time previously and it has worked. In regards to the pride in the jersey, these things come out when you get well beaten.”
I was appointed Ipswich Diggers coach in January 2014. In the first Chairman’s Challenge of my tenure, in May of that year, the Diggers came the closest they ever had in history to winning the tournament.
We beat the Gold Coast by two points in game one but only managed a draw against Brisbane in game three of the round-robin and lost the tournament on points differential. The same newspaper that carried so many negative comments about the Diggers experience a year earlier now had the back page headline “Cruel Finish for Focused Diggers”. The captain spoke of “the pride and passion” of the players’ efforts and of a “phenomenal performance”.
Fast forward two years and the Chairman’s Challenge trophy finally ended in Ipswich hands. Ipswich Rugby League chairman Jack Rhea told the QT in May 2016: “We’ve had nine years and the closest we came was a draw two years ago”. He also spoke of the pride restored to the jersey after two huge wins over the Gold Coast and Brisbane opponents.
After three campaigns in charge of the Diggers, Ipswich was (arguably) the dominant side in the competition and on this evidence, were no longer the easy beats. This series will focus on the coaching processes, the off -ield and on-field decisions that were made, the key relationships and the successes (and failures) that occurred over the most successful three year period for the Diggers in the living memory of most observers.
Staying true to myself from the start and accepting nothing less
When it first got mentioned that the IRL chairman Jack Rhea was interested in me as a coach, I had to make it clear to him that I had to bring change and not just accept the ‘status quo’. We had a meeting over coffee, we didn’t keep the meeting to a time limit and I asked Jack what his thoughts were.
To my enjoyment, what he was saying was music to my ears and I’ve since learned, so were my words to him – so it was a great meeting.
Jack didn’t want to have things as they were and he knew change needed to happen.
He saw me as the change agent and was willing to back me to the hilt. Change in my eyes meant being able to have complete control of the football side of the Diggers organisation, not accepting bad attitudes and only getting people involved who wanted to be part of it and who wanted to improve.
That might mean saying goodbye to some.
I asked Jack to hand over the footy side to me and let me do whatever I needed to do in terms of selections of staff and players, how often we trained, where and when etc. He agreed.
Not only that, he told me of a few ‘unfortunate’ happenings over the last few Diggers campaigns and of players involved.
He told me he didn’t want those people involved again and I agreed to that – but a new start for everyone else.
We were off and running.
Absolute confidence things would improve
It doesn’t take a genius to work out that the Diggers ‘brand’ was in a bit of a confused state at this time.
But it had nothing to do with me or the staff who were shoulder to shoulder with me so we could look at it with fresh pairs of energetic and enthusiastic eyes. I didn’t let the past affect my thoughts and I encouraged those around me not to either.
Our plan was to look forward with confidence.
Doing our homework
I have a habit whenever I get a new coaching job.
I grab a brand new journal and write. I write down anything I hear about my new coaching environment. Not only that, I seek opinions – opinions of previous staff and players associated with Diggers. It was clear that there was a general ‘malaise’ around the concept, that it was something that players and staff knew should be a proud moment for them but for some reason, had turned into a chore.
The most important meeting I held was with the previous coach.
We shared coffee at a local McDonalds and chewed the fat for well over an hour.
He told me of his experiences, why things were difficult, which players I should be looking at and which ones had let him down.
I’ll admit, it was at this time that I started to have a tiny doubt creep into my mind. The previous coach was a very experienced campaigner and was on the development staff of the NRL’s Brisbane Broncos at the time.
He was no slouch, he knew his footy and I had no doubt I was talking to someone who had given his heart and soul to this project in previous years.
He is also a great bloke and cares about the City of Ipswich and the players in his care.
I think it was at this point I realised what a sizeable rebuilding job I had on my hands.
I also noticed, from some of the people in ‘clubland’ in particular, there was a sense that Diggers staffing and selections should be an ‘equal split’ between the clubs. Do for example, a set number from each club or at least someone from each club involved. Again, I felt that this was not a particularly good recipe for success.
More of that in later parts ….. keep an eye on this website!
Lee Addison is the Head of Performance for Spain Rugby League. You can find him at rugbyleaguecoach.com.au. He is also offering FREE 4 week training programs for Coaches and Players to help recover from COVID. Please visit the ‘Rugby League Coach’ YouTube page, click subscribe and send a screenshot to firstname.lastname@example.org for your free programs.