New USA Women’s Head Coach talks to @RugbySaracens about a laid-back rugby life and success with Saracens Women.
Saracens Women’s outgoing Head Coach Rob Cain arrived promptly, paint-splattered from a morning’s decorating, at the local pub for our chat about his four successful years at the club and recent appointment to be USA Women Rugby’s first full-time Head Coach. It seemed typical Rob: very humble, keen to help and very generous with his time.
We started by exploring Rob’s outlook on life. He said that he always looked to achieve balance in his life and ensure rugby didn’t totally take over. “I’ve never really seen rugby as a job. I’ve seen it as passion and something you really enjoy doing and you are very fortunate to do. I think it’s very important that you have an outlook on real life and the real world, so I’ve always done things as well as rugby. It’s always allowed me to stay very balanced and focused on just how important real-life things are and how sometimes things get taken way too important when it comes to sport.”
Balancing his home life, business interests in building and development and a full commitment to coaching a top Premier 15s side is a tricky challenge but “you just get up early and go to bed later. When you have a real passion for something, you just find the time and you make things work. I’m extremely fortunate to have a such a supportive partner: Julie is amazing and without her helping me I wouldn’t be able to do it. My family too, my Mum, Dad and brother Sam, without them it just wouldn’t work and I’m fortunate to have their support.”
Rob doesn’t see himself as being on a coaching pathway and doesn’t have a grand plan mapped out for his future. “I’ve just been very fortunate wherever I go to have connected with some extremely good people who are talented rugby players,” said Rob, “I suppose my success has come because I care and worry about other people. I think that’s where some other coaches go wrong: players have to know you care, have to see you care and they have to have a connection with you that care what they think.”
From player to coach with Templars 7s
Rob and his brother Sam were fortunate to experience rugby and its culture both in NZ and the UK. That included what he modestly described as “playing to a decent standard”, including some as captain, for NZ sides Hamilton Marist and Taupiri and several English sides such as Esher, Henley and, whisper it quietly given his Sarries credentials now, Quins and Wasps (where he played with luminaries such as James Haskell, Craig Dowd, Tom Rees and Trevor Leota in A League action under coach Shaun Edwards). Major surgery on bicep tendon followed by a long rehabilitation period saw him then throw himself into sevens action with renown invitational touring sevens side Templar 7s, which he and his brother took the lead on from 2009.
Rob’s first foray into coaching came aged 30 with Templars 7s, initially stepping up as a player-coach. However further numerous surgeries including shoulder operations, pectoral major tendon, two hip scopes and a ligament teres reconstruction, on top of Perthes disease from a young age (which made his achievement of playing top class sport even more remarkable), meant his decision to give up playing to focus on coaching was made easier.
Templars 7s meant coaching a huge array of talent: “We had a host of guys with Templars 7s who were on the radar for New Zealand and Fiji, England, Wales, some of whom went on to get caps and be All Blacks.” He reeled off an impressively long list of prominent players including Henry Speight, Guy Thompson, George Tilsley, Brad Weber, Randall Kamea and Dan Norton. Rob said, “They listened to me, I don’t know why, but they did. We won some big finals, series, tournaments, lost a few as well and we came out on the right side against lots of international teams including England. We had fun and made friends for life.”
The Saracens adventure
His Saracens Women adventure began in 2014 when he was appointed to succeed Ross McClelland as Head Coach. “I had an interview with the club’s board and some of the players at Bramley Road. We sat down, did the interview and a coaching demonstration with some of the players,” said Rob, “I remember coming away thinking I really want this job. Thankfully they gave me the job and we took it from there. The next four years have been a bit of a whirlwind.
The most significant initial success was, with the help particularly of Richard Gregg (Stadium Director, Allianz Park) and Laura Eddie (Saracens Women’s redoubtable legend who has evolved from player to coach to now indefatigable Chair of the club), was securing the use of Allianz Park as their training and match venue. Rob said, “That was a big turning point. To have the support of Nigel Wray [Chairman and owner of Saracens] and the rest of the club to do that was massive.”
Nigel Wray continues to be an important supporter for the Women’s side as well as his well-publicised backing for the mens’ team. Rob said, “Him and Laura meet regularly and have a really good relationship. To have his support in the background and for people to know how much he cares about the club and how he shares the vision of the rest of the girls and the Board is phenomenal. It’s just fantastic to have someone who cares so much about the club actively involved.
Four years and four successful squads
Rob joined Saracens Women in summer 2014, arriving late in the preseason during the 2014 Women’s World but it was the start of a Double-winning season, with a side super-charged by The Machine. “Margaret Alphonsi is hands- down one of the best players I’ve ever had the privilege of working with. I was very fortunate to catch her at the end of her career where she was very open about being desperate to win the title. That is coming from someone who had won the World Cup and was the best rugby player in the world. All she wanted to do was win a title for Saracens. That was her mission, week-in, week-out and she drove that and the girls behind her, with Georgina Gulliver, loads of girls who put in a huge shift that year. Poppy Cleall was outstanding. Lotte Clapp and Lauren Cattell broke into the team that year. April Brown was phenomenal. That was a good year.”
His second season meant trying to repeat a rare Double. Rob said, “Defending your title is always difficult, you have a target on your backs and it’s everyone’s cup finals. We saw that with the men this season. To have continued success is always difficult. We did enough to get to the finals, beating a very good Lichfield in the league semi-final. We didn’t execute as well as we could in the league final against Richmond. We had some players that really stood out, such as Brooke Sim who came over from New Zealand and was outstanding. Lauren Cattell scored two or three tries in the final but we just didn’t do enough of the right stuff well. We were 22-5 down at half-time and it was difficult to come back. In the cup it was very similar and another defeat to Richmond.”
Rob’s third season saw further enforced changes to the squad, but also enabled him to bring in some emerging playing talent that he knew from his time coaching the London and South-East Women’s U18s. He was also able to bring in some excellent coaching support to strengthen his off-field team, forging quickly a reinforced team of friends.
Rob said, “In 2016-17 we won the Premiership 7s and were captained by Kat Evans, who had come back from a very serious injury that had taken her out of the game for almost four years. Garnet Mackinder broke into the 15s side having taken part in the 7s that year. We had drafted Garnet in to the 2016 Rugby Rocks squad after Kat had said she had a friend who could play and was pretty quick. Although we lost the final, Garnet was scoring for fun. She thanked me for introducing her to [current England Women’s Lead Coach] Scott Bemand and said that she wanted to play 7s for England. She understood that she would have to play 15s and she joined the club. She’s a great finisher. Her rugby ability has really come through.”
Rob assessed the challenge he faced going into that Premiership season: “We lost 8 or 9 players again to England 7s, with Lotte, Lauren, Vicky Fleetwood, Sarah McKenna and others. Seraphine Okemba was contracted to France and then a few player movements. Poppy Cleall went to Bristol. A few more people retired. 9 or 10 front line players. To win the 7s was fantastic. To have so also many young players come through like El Perry and Zoe Harrison, Emma Uren, Harriet Austin and others was outstanding. We had so many breakthrough players that year. Neil Harris, Lewis Soanes and Bob Barba joined the coaching staff as well. It gave us all a very good learning period to work together as a group. It gave all a good understanding of how we could work well as a group, our needs, and what we needed to do to be even more successful. For the players to get to two semi-finals when half the squad hadn’t been exposed to senior rugby is testament to them.”
Rob’s fourth and eventually final season as Head Coach was the first in the new Tyrrell’s Premier 15s league. The three-year partnership brought significant investment from Tyrrell’s alongside the multi-million pounds commitment from the RFU. The investment was expected to improve standards of the women’s game, as well as increase the talent pool available for selection for England in the future. It has certainly made huge strides towards that aim in just the first season. A gripping final at Ealing’s Vallis Way saw Saracens emerge victorious against Harlequins.
Rob enjoyed the win: “It’s not normal for a team so young to win a title with so many players playing their first season at that level.” He said, “The first sense I had was that I so pleased for everyone because I know how hard everyone works. I was immensely pleased for the players and so proud of them. Our style of rugby and the way we like to play isn’t always liked, and it’s been detrimental to some of the players at international level.” Rob added that, “We have the way we want to play and the players put other people first and I’m pleased they proved their point. There were so many players out there that it was a great opportunity to prove their point like Helena, Lotte, Lauren, Marlie Packer, Poppy, nice for Bryony to get looked at, Hannah Botterman, Kat, May Campbell: the list is endless.” Rob expressed his happiness for the “especially hard-working support staff, medics and S&C, and for Graeme, Laura and all the coaches who put up with me. I got the media out of the way and then I had a beer on the pitch, just looked at the trophy and thought, yes, we’ve done alright.”
“Work rate and want”
The final against Quins was tough. “I was so proud of them”, Rob said, “They had to really fight. Poppy was really devastated to be sin-binned and I think I was the only one in the coaches’ box that really thought we could stick it out just because I know how hard the girls have worked on their defence. Marlie was exceptional, as was Kat. So many players ran themselves into the ground that day. Bryony Cleall was exceptional in the first half: she steam- rolled everything. I really felt for her when it came over the radio that she had hurt her hand. They reviewed it for a
minute or two and she had to come off. She’s someone who has worked hard at her game and she’s had to because Harriet Austin and Kay Searcy have been breathing down her neck and Bronwen Jackson-Turner too. Inner competition, whether a player is multi-capped or just a youngster, has really allowed the team to develop.” It was similar at fly-half with Zoe Harrison, Helena, April Brown and others pushing each other hard, and for others in other positions.
Rob’s reflections on the inaugural season of Tyrrell’s Premier 15s
It felt like a different league. Rob said the “intensity was hard. More ball in play, more collisions, more aggressive rugby. Obviously, a lot of clubs really built on a big infrastructure. Lots of different leading coaches with experience of the championship and international level and they all came in and got involved. That’s allowed more teams to get more detail. More money being spent in terms of S&C. More coverage, like #RugbySaracens doing a wonderful job, and games being streamed allowing teams to be really connected to the fans. It’s been a really good year one. I think it’s exceeded a lot of people’s expectations.
“There’s still lots that could be better and improved on. I think the biggest thing is going to be working out player movements and allowing players to have that consistency at clubs. Allowing a really detailed infrastructure in terms of are they contracted or not contracted, are they professional or not professional. I think, at the moment, it’s a little bit grey.
“There needs to be clarity about the new England professional contracts. A lot of the detail about access and availability needs to be worked out. Are the players contracts centralised?
But, one of the huge benefits of the League has been that it’s highlighted how successful a domestic league can be and how there might not be a need for centralised contracts if the clubs were allowed to go down a more professional environment with contracting players. I think the clubs could manage that. I think this year has shown that. There’s obviously a lot of things have to be spoken about between the clubs and the RFU. Unfortunately, I won’t be part of that process.
“The new minimum standards have been great and I’m proud to say Saracens probably led the way on that, just in terms of the infrastructure and the way we ran as a club. A lot of clubs are now working towards that.”
Charlotte Clapp, or ‘Lotte’ was for some, perhaps including herself, a surprise choice as the Saracens Women’s captain for the first Premier 15s season. Rob had no doubt: “she’s one of the most hard-working people I’ve ever come across.” He explained that she’s not afraid to question: “One of the best qualities about Lotte is she speaks at the right time. It was a bit of a surprise to everyone, as we probably had lots more experienced candidates that had been captain before. Lotte was 22 and we had a whole group of young players coming in. Again, captaining from the wing, people probably thought I was a bit crazy doing that. But the best thing was it enabled the group to really help and support each other. It enabled senior leaders that we wanted through the team to be able to support the captain. That enabled more empowerment and less reliance on the coaches.”
As Rob said, she’s also a dual 7s and 15s international and “she’s come through the second team all the way into the first team. She can empathise and relate to the younger players who are just starting out. And her Mum’s cake is amazing.”
“I think you just have to know the group and the group needed Lotte as captain. There was so many more integral things about what we wanted to do and having Lotte as part of that was wonderful. I’m so pleased she said yes.”
Rob reflected that initially she displayed some understandable nerves in media appearances as captain but flourished during the season. “I’m so happy for her because to play as well as she did in the second half of the season being captain and being so young. She scored some really important tries for us at crucial moments, like the final. I just hope she keeps on enjoying it and having fun with it.
“I think she did a great job. Looking back now, I’d like to think she would now fully understand why I asked to be captain. Just to see her grow as a person has enabled her to kick on even more as a rugby player. As a rugby player she’s fantastic anyway, and it’s just looking at a few little intricacies, but for Lotte to evolve to the next stage was all about her people skills, presence and leadership.”
Win like Cain
Rob spoke about his views on coaching and how he had been successful said, “As coaches, myself included, we are all very guilty of making a simple game complicated and I think people can spin off a 20-page coaching philosophy but not really believe it. I think whatever your philosophy is you have to truly believe in it. Finding people in a coaching team who believe in it is even more important and then of course you have to sell it to the players. As coaches you are sales people, you are there to nurture and support but you are there to sell your message.
“I like playing fast, aggressive, go-forward rugby. We look at the concepts of go-forward, continuity and support as principles and we break them down with detail but it’s all about everything we do as coaches is about the team I’m involved in can make the best possible accurate decisions and can execute, and that the team we play against are panicked, distressed and can’t make the same decisions. You then put your framework together depending on what players you’ve got within your squad.
“There is always structure, but I’m not a fan of pre-proscribed structure: breakdown, hit up, hit up, play it out wide. The reality is that if you get the principles of go-forward, continuity and support right then that becomes your structure and you play off it. That’s what we were able to do because we had a wealth of talent with players that had skills that had to be continuously polished but were able to play a certain way. As a player, structure allows you to have less accountability because you can say ‘well you told me to do that’.
“I think many coaches lose sight of you being a coach, not a player. I am going to be extremely proud to be a coach of the US Women Eagles, but I will never be a US Women Eagle. I am especially and immensely proud to have coached Saracens Women, but I will never be a Saracens Woman player. The teams that I coach play a game as a player would play a game. You have to make that player nurtured and supported so that they can aspire to be the best player that they can, not play how I would play. That’s how I coach.
“If you care and invest in people as individuals, they know you care and they trust you. A lot of players like structure and some clubs are heavy on structure. My philosophy is getting your structure off the principles. That comes from my Sevens background where you have to play heads-up rugby and just because you have more people on the field you go away from that.
“Empowering players and working to their framework. Everything you put on paper, if the players don’t bring it to life then it’s worthless.”
Rob mentioned several players in the current squad for whom international honours had come, should keep coming or will do soon. Rob cited a long list including Lauren, Lotte, Poppy (“She’s worked so hard at her game. I always knew she would play for England. Not everyone outside the club believed that but I’m so proud of her“), Helena Rowland (“she’s a wonderful talent, remarkable how grounded she is”), Cara Wardle (“she got her opportunities to play for the first XV and never looked back”), Emma Uren (“real hard worker and has had to come through the tough way after coming to rugby late and having to fight for everything; back from injury and was on fire with the try of the season”) and Hannah Botterman (“she is going to go on to be one of the best props in the world as long as she can keep her work ethic up and coaches can let her go on being herself”). The whole squad “are all good players.”
“I get the credit, but it is most definitely not down to me. They have got to go away and have to do the hard work. They deserve the pat on the back, not me. They are the ones who have to live it. I don’t have to go to the gym. I don’t have to do the strength and conditioning. I don’t have to do the analysis. I support and help them and if they say thank you that’s all I need though it doesn’t even have to be that: just seeing them grow and be better people is it. I think that the way we go about things, the way that we schedule the training, and our philosophies, does enable a player to grow because it’s all about layering up. You’re just building these constant layers throughout the season. You are letting them grow, learn and empower. It’s just those layers that continually build up, then you move on. You have an evolution come through and you have fun.”
“You have to know people. I’d like to think that’s one of my biggest qualities as a coach. You have to care and to know people. If you get that balance right you can really help them succeed and become the best rugby player they can be. Sometimes it’s not about the rugby, it’s about them being a better person and realising how good they are.”
Time to say goodbye to Saracens?
“It would have been quite easy for me to stay at Saracens. I am quietly confident that I could have done another one or two seasons, but if you really believe in this philosophy of putting others first then you have to be brave enough to say it’s time for someone else to do something else.”
“My aspirations I told Saracens when I went for the job was to leave the place in a better place. I want to have a really good infrastructure, have a working staff, to have left with a new player pathway and new age demographic and players that understood how to be successful, what it takes and to buy into this new era. That’s pretty much what I’ve done.”
“I’ve been very fortunate to have been part of the Saracens family. I am immensely proud to have been involved at Saracens Women and to have left the club in a better place. Who knows, I might come back. You never know. Saracens will always go wherever I go, and I’d like to think that wherever Saracens go I’ve played a little part in that.”
“I’ll be following and I’m sure the new coach will ring up and ask if there are any players that want to come over. I’m sure there will be lots of different conversations.”
“I’ve made some great friends at the club. It was tough decision but it could have been quite selfish for me to stay and not quite staying for the right reasons. You’ve got to be brave enough to challenge yourself.”
Still only 38 years old, Rob is now set to move to California this summer with his partner Julie, who currently works for Aviva, to take up his new appointment as USA Rugby’s first full-time Women’s Head Coach. He appreciates the scale of the task ahead. “It’s a full-on position. It’s a massive country. I’ve got a lot of work to do in terms of seeing what the landscape looks like, identifying the players, looking at the programme and seeing what we need and where we can go with it.”
Rob recognises the step-up. “I’m looking forward to the real test of international rugby, the challenge and to meeting all the staff and working with them. I’m really looking forward to meeting the players and just seeing if we can ruffle a few feathers along the way.”
The recruitment process was long including four interviews via Skype. Rob is getting ready to go but doesn’t have a start date yet while his work visa process continues to take time. He’s already started with detailed behind the scenes remote work, engaging closely with Emilie Bydwell (General Manager to USA Women’s High-Performance rugby – and a former player for Rob in his debut season at Saracens Women) and Alex Magleby (General Manager to USA Mens’ High Performance rugby), putting everything in place and making sure all the boxes are being ticked and we’re pushing on.” Rob realises though, “the real work doesn’t start until I get there.”
Rob’s first game as Head Coach will be against the New Zealand Women at Soldier Field in Chicago on 03 November, part of a triple bill there that day including US Men v NZ Maoris and Ireland v Italy. He laughed and said, “Brilliant: it doesn’t get better than that. It’s a wonderful opportunity to play the World Champions. We have nothing to lose. I think the players will be absolutely buzzing for the opportunity and it’ll be a really good way to start. We’ll see certain things in that game. Probably no one thinks we’re going to win but with my background I’ll always have a crack. I’m excited for it. The biggest thing to help players and programmes grow is to be constantly challenged. You learn so much when you play against the best team in the world. Will they be the best team in the world in November? I guess we’ll find out.”
His determination that the side will give a good account of themselves was clear. “One thing that anyone who plays us will see is that we’ll play aggressive, expansive and fast rugby. We’ll run the ball just like we have done at Saracens. I’ve seen the players already out in the USA and there’s some wonderful athletes but more importantly there are some very talented rugby players. When people speak about the USA, I want them to talk about rugby: that’s a big thing. I want people to think we’re a good team. I want people to know they are in for a real rugby challenge.”
“I’m excited to be part of that and really help them kick-on. I’m not going over there to make up the numbers. 100 per cent. We’re going to go gunning after everyone. Is it going to happen in the first couple of games? I don’t know. Is it going to take time to settle? May be. Once we know where we are, I’m confident we can really have a lot of fun with it.”
Rob has set goals for himself on his new job but was keeping them close within the US Rugby performance management circle for now. He said, “I think if I get my goals right, the more you watch us play the more you’ll see my goals come through.” He argued that “Before I speak about anything openly, I need to meet with the players and we need to have our shared goals. I need to see what they want. Once we’ve got that it’ll all become public.”
He did let on though that, “If I was to talk about a personal goal, I would like people to talk about USA Women’s rugby as rugby first and athleticism second. That would be a big thing. I want us to be viewed as a good rugby team. I want people to talk about the players as talented rugby players and athleticism comes in second.”
The future of Women’s Rugby?
Rob was positive about the future with some clear thoughts. He said, “In the UK it’s going to be professional sooner rather than later. It has to. For it to really kick on it has to start being professional. There are too many players stuck between a rock and a hard place. They have to rest but have full time jobs and are having to back up all the training hours. It takes its toll on relationships, life and on money. It makes things really difficult. A contract could help appease that and allow people to be the best rugby player they can be.”
“We need to get more bums on seats” at Women’s Rugby. Rob supported Sky Sports’ #ShowUp social media campaign to encourage more people to go to watch women’s sport. “If we look at it as a product, women’s rugby is really good product. I think that’s shown this year in some of the stats and the amount of tries.”
Rob pointed to increased media coverage, particularly in the second half of the Premier 15s season, particularly in the Telegraph and Guardian. “The experience of watching Premier 15’s rugby was less managed than a lot of top class mens games: that was something to continue and should help the women’s game to grow. People are really connecting with the players.”
Words by James from @RugbySaracens for RugbyUnited; Pictures by Saracens Women and Daniel Nechita