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Cornish Pirates co-head coaches and long-serving former players Gavin Cattle and Alan Paver hail the impending return of the Championship and tell Neale Harvey why they remain fully committed to the club’s cause.
The Championship finally has a 6 March start date, how does that feel?
Gavin Cattle: Good. It’s been a difficult period for all of us and we’d hoped to get a date a bit sooner, but at least we now have something to aim for. We’ve tried to keep the boys ticking over mentally as much as anything but as of this week, once we get confirmation over funding, we’ll be able to start Covid-19 testing and ramp-up the contact training.
From a pack perspective, Alan, how equipped are your guys for scrummaging?
Alan Paver: We’ve done a lot of educational stuff and been able to mimic certain actions so we’re ready to link it together. In terms of repetitions, we’ve done virtually nothing so if we had to play Saracens in four weeks, we might be deficient. But we’ve had this group together for quite a long time now and they’re experienced, so we’ll be able to get them back in shape pretty quickly and six weeks will be enough. Will our scrum fire to the highest levels we want? Probably not, but everyone bar Ealing and Saracens will be in the same position.
Mentally, how have you kept 31 players engaged for the last nine months?
AP: Human nature, especially when there’s a lot of doubt around, means you’re dealing psychologically with the players, trying to keep them informed as best you can. They have good days and bad days and people get frustrated – we all do. The Championship’s a tough gig at the best of times and you have to give a hell of a lot, so when you’re trying to navigate through to the start of a season and you keep doing the same things over and over in anticipation of a date, that brings its own issues. We’ve built in breaks and tried to do different things in the community, but the restrictions have made it hard. We’re just hoping now that by the end of this month we’ll have returned to a normal schedule.
GC: I’ll echo ‘Paves’ in that human nature, especially from a rugby perspective when you haven’t got something competitive to look forward to, means your mind can wander and you start thinking about ‘what ifs?’ because of the uncertainty. That takes the edge off trying to get your body in shape and not having the challenge of contact means we’ve had to make the lads stay aware of the bigger picture.
Fortunately, we’ve got a loyal, supportive owner and the government have given us a foot up now, so it’s about keeping our eyes on the prize. We’ve got a driven group of players, coaches and staff and we can start concentrating on stuff we can control now.
You’ve been at the club 19 years, Alan… just how supportive has your owner Dicky Evans been?
AP: Unbelievably so. He’s obviously having to deal with things away from rugby as well so not only is he trying to negotiate a way through his own business and family issues, to have the time and energy to tackle the rugby situation, along with the Stadium for Cornwall project, means he’s fighting pretty hard. The board have stepped up as well and Becki Thomas, our CEO, has navigated the club superbly over the last six months. Without her having a good handle on the rugby and business aspects, I don’t think we’d be in as good a shape as we are now. That’s been massively important.
You’ve been co-head coaches since 2016 – a unique situation in top end English rugby – so how’s it worked out from a relationship and decision-making perspective?
GC: It’s panned out okay – Alan’s not a bad bloke to work with! What’s really important is that your relationship and connection with each other is strong, and trust is vital. We’re both pretty emotional guys but we can bring each other back on to a straight line. I’d like to think we’re bigger than just results, we both really care for the club and the boys and we’ve been in it together for a while now and know each other pretty well. There’ve been no hiccups whatsoever.
AP: On the whole, it’s worked extremely well. If anyone’s going to do this in any other business or sport, where you have two guys who sit flat with each other, first and foremost the levels of trust between you have to be right up there. Also, you’ve got to surround yourself with people who offer a different perspective on how to think about things. Occasionally, decisions can be slowed down because you’ve got two people coming to conclusions rather than one person calling the shots, but it does mean that you look at things from every angle. I reckon a real strength of that is the fact that you become very creative in your problem solving, looking at things from multiple perspectives. Through those conversations you then come up with very clear plans, whereas if you’re on your own you can sometimes be feeling your way in the dark a bit. It is unusual to have co-head coaches but it works when you’ve got people who really trust each other.
Do you find players favouring one coach over the other?
GC: Naturally, backs will tend to give me a call and vice-versa with Alan and the forwards. Paves might connect with someone more strongly than me, but we’re both conscious of that and the dynamics of working in a team mean that you’re not just plugged into certain groups, you distribute yourself where needed. We use our nous a bit and it works well.
In your four seasons in charge Pirates have finished sixth, fourth, fifth and third, so how satisfied are you with that consistency?
GC: Very pleased: Our first season was the most challenging but that laid the foundations for our subsequent consistency because we retained a lot of the playing capabilities and personalities who have helped us create our culture since then. These boys are largely local and give us a pretty strong foundation to keep building in future.
AP: I’m extremely proud of what we’ve done and I’d have been disappointed if we’d played all 22 games last season and not finished in the top four. It’s more satisfying when you consider there have been times when we didn’t have a lot. At one point we had just 27 players in our squad; another time we were training with just 18 people; then there have been other times when Gavin and I have had to join in training just to make the numbers up. We know what it is not to have a lot and one of the unifying strengths we have – and I include assistant coaches Chris Morgan and Matt Jess in this – is we’re not afraid to speak to other coaches who’ve been through similar tough experiences. There are high-end coaches we’ve built strong relationships with, so along the way people have offered us extremely good advice which has come in handy. I feel proud that we’re involved in a club that has been able to grow and proud of the lads for the way they’ve dedicated themselves to the club.
Who have been your coaching mentors?
AP: Initially, (ex-Pirates DoR) Ian Davies really pushed us to get out there and coach and I owe thanks to him because he introduced us to guys like Kevin Bowring and Richard Shuttleworth at the RFU who gave us real encouragement to develop our coaching styles. There have been so many and more recently Martin Haag and Jack Richards have been challenging us. Jack’s an ex-cricketer, I know, but he’s been very influential behind the scenes at Pirates.
GC: Jim McKay was very influential in my playing career and the knock-on effect into coaching – I still keep in touch with him now. I also speak to Aaron James, a Kiwi who’s based at Bath University and was my Level 4 coaching mentor. He’s been here a long time and knows the northern hemisphere game, so he’s a really good sounding board along with Martin Haag and Jack Richards.
AP: Dean Ryan was also very good with us and along with Gordon Lord, who came to the RFU from cricket, they came down to observe us and share their knowledge. Pat Lam is another extremely personable coach with great knowledge who’s welcomed us into his environment and we get on well with a number of Premiership coaches with whom we’re able to exchange a lot of technical and tactical information. Within our own league, Mike Rayer is a great man to speak to at Bedford, as is Steve Boden at Doncaster. This is a tough gig at times and you need those good relationships.
GC: It’s turning into a long answer this one, but one group we’ve missed out are the guys at Exeter and in particular Haydn Thomas, because obviously we have a lot of their players.
AP: Yes. They talk about there being a special relationship between America and the UK but we have the same with Exeter because we’ve built a good foundation and they trust us with their younger players. As well as Haydn, who works closely with us on dual-registration, both Gavin and I have known their skills coach Ricky Pellow for a long time and whenever we go to see them Rob Baxter, Rob Hunter and Ali Hepher are extremely welcoming. We can talk tactical and technical philosophies for hours with those guys and I can only see that relationship getting stronger.
You’ve just lost fullback Kyle Moyle to Gloucester, but how satisfying is it to have seen so many Pirates players stepping up over the years?
GC: Kyle’s especially pleasing as he’s come through here since the start of his career. He’s had a couple of opportunities in the past that haven’t quite come off but we’ve always known he could play at Premiership level, he’s just been a bit unlucky with injury. He had a serious knee injury in 2019 but came back stronger and hasn’t looked out of place at Gloucester and deserves his shot. It’s always satisfying to see guys move up.
AP: Front row-wise, I’ve been so pleased for Christian Judge, who’s at Bath now, because he’s such a determined character and I always knew he had something special. But Moyler’s actually given me the most pleasure because, as Gavin says, he had to go through a hard time. It wasn’t that long ago he was on the back pitch with the likes of Jack Nowell running with the minis and juniors but their careers took different paths. Kyle went to St Ives while Jack kicked-on with Exeter, but Kyle developed into a man, stayed strong and his chance has finally come. At the moment, I’d say Gloucester are seeing just 70% of what he’s capable of – so watch this space!
Premiership ring-fencing is moving closer, so what are your thoughts on that?
AP: There’ll be a lot of people out there trying to protect their own interests, which is natural and we are in an unusual time where relegation from the Premiership could potentially be decided by how many times you can put a team on the field because of Covid. I understand why they are pushing for ring-fencing and it may well be reasonable because of the circumstances, but from a Championship perspective, if we do not fight hard to maintain our league and keep the opportunity open between the Championship and Premiership, who knows what it will look like in one, two or five years? I always think there’s value in promotion and relegation and I would not want our league to go easily into the night and simply allow ring-fencing to happen. I think we’ve got to beat the drum and say we still want the opportunities, still want a professional league and still want to be ambitious. Could you end up having to buy your way in? I don’t know how realistic that is, the cost would be inordinate, but I do know that promotion and relegation will have value as long as the Championship has value.
GC: I can see the arm-wrestle from a business perspective around stability and forward planning. You want certainty over what’s happening so if you’re caught in a relegation dogfight it will affect planning. But isn’t that the exciting thing about sport? I look at all the rugby competitions around the world and try to keep a level head, but if you look at Super Rugby, the PRO 14 or even Super League here, as soon as there’s no relegation you get to halfway through the season where it’s just the top half teams left in the title race, so what does it do for crowds? The PRO 14 was struggling long before Covid and Super Rugby crowds had fallen off a cliff, so when there’s nothing to play for apart from developing players and your brand, the spectacle suffers. You don’t get the same pressure or controversy, which I think is what’s awesome about the Premiership.
Alan, constant scrum resets – what can be done about them?
AP: There’ll be a lot of data run on this but I’d have thought they (World Rugby) would have gone to a pre-engage model by now. They’re obviously trying to educate referees and teams around what they want to see but if we went to a pre-engage situation and brought in a compulsory, proper hook, that could provide a solution while simultaneously allowing the better scrummaging sides to scrum and sides who want to get the ball away a chance to do that as well. Teams that have a strong scrum tend to be the better ones in the Championship and Premiership so you don’t want to dilute that, but I do believe we could find a better balance by having the laws correct and having a competition, rather than the mess of a scrum we often currently see.
Gavin, what can we do about the current over-reliance on kicking?
I can see why teams kick, especially in international rugby where you’ve got top end defences and line speed is rapid across the board, but one thing that could change the amount of kicking is how the maul is refereed. At the minute, it’s pretty hard to set up a platform for running rugby where you’ve got a maul that doesn’t create space, which means you’re attacking against numbers. If I had a wish-list, number one would be to referee the maul in a way that would tie-up more players and create more space.
Finally, we’ve seen a lot of Pirates players move up to the Premiership, so when will Alan Paver and Gavin Cattle do likewise?
AP: Our commitment and focus is here. If it was just about coaching at a higher level, those opportunities have come most years but we’re so entrenched with what we’re trying to do here. We’re trying to navigate our way through this tricky time but the club is still ambitious and still has aspirations, so until we decide otherwise our journey is to push the club beyond this league. That might take a little more time, but right now we’ve spoken closely with Dicky and we’re still very committed. If it was just a case of being at a higher level, it would have happened already.
GC: With the current situation nobody really knows the future, but it’s not just a rugby situation to stay, it’s a life decision as well. Working with Paves, Chris Morgan, Matt Jess and the rest of our team, we’ve built a group of people we feel responsible for and who we feel can take this club forward. Obviously, a lot of things will have to fall into place financially but our relationship with Dicky is what’s kept us here and he’s backed us from the word go. We’re ambitious but we’re also loyal and until told otherwise our focus is here.
The last 10 months of the pandemic have been difficult and inevitably frustrating for us all
Well done to Cornish Pirates’ sponsor Davidstow Cheddar for donating some of their cheese
The Rugby Paper included a Q&A interview with Cornish Pirates’ co-head coaches