PETER WRIGHT doesn’t feel or behave like the oldest coach in the BT Premiership, but he is slowly coming round to accepting his status as father of the house.
“We were at a meeting at the start of the season and one of the SRU guys was talking about all the good up-and-coming coaches in the Premiership, and he ran off these names like Calum Forrester, Finlay Gillies and Ben Cairns. I was thinking: What about me? Then I looked around and thought about it and realised that I am the oldest guy on the go, by a fair few years,” laughs the 46-year-old unreconstructed enfant terrible of Scottish rugby.
“Coaches are getting younger. When I started out I was in my early thirties, but these guys are in their twenties,” he adds.
There is genuine admiration there at the maturity and rugby sense of his young rivals, but also a definite murmur of frustration that some of these characters are at the start of an exciting journey which has already passed Wright by.
“They are only going to take coaches into the pro game who have professional playing experience so that’s going to have an effect on who wants to go into coaching because unless you have that pro background you know you are going to run into a glass ceiling,” he sighs.
Which begs the question: Why is he still involved? Whatever he is getting from Boroughmuir in terms of compensation for his time and travel, we can safely say he is not going to buy a holiday home in Spain off the back of it – so there must, surely, be some more deeply rooted motivation for carrying on working at the pit face when all his pals have moved into the committee room?
“You see other guys who give coaching a go and then drop out, probably because they feel they have done their time, but this is what I’ve always done and I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I didn’t have it,” says Scottish rugby’s answer to Peter Pan.
“The summer is a nightmare. That’s why I took my cricket umpiring up – it gave me something to look forward to on a Saturday. People complain that the rugby season is getting longer but I think that’s good because you are involved more.”
There is, of course, a flip-side to the indefatigable Wright charm. His refusal to toe the party line, and in particular his castigation of referees, has hardly endeared him to officialdom and is almost certainly part of the reason his professional career didn’t quite take off. He argues that he is always happy to give positive feedback after the red-hot temperature of his game-brain has cooled down – but the SRU was always going to be uncomfortable with his shoot-first-ask-questions-later approach to diplomacy.
“It is certainly not for rugby reasons,” he says, when asked why he thinks he missed out on coaching higher up the greasy pole. “It was more to do with what I’ve said and who I’ve criticised in the past. I’ve been told by people inside Murrayfield that I am a good enough coach to be there but some of the things I’ve said are against me.”
Loyalty might also be an issue.
“Craig Chalmers is, I think, one of the best coaches Scotland has had coming through and yet because he had a couple of misdemeanours, he was never considered,” says Wright.
“When I was Scotland under-20s coach, I argued for nearly an hour and a half with two people inside the SRU about him being my assistant because he was a great up-and-coming coach and we need to be big enough to deal with the other side of things in his life. But they wouldn’t have him because they thought he was too difficult to manage. It just disappoints me that an organisation as big as the SRU is frightened because they think somebody is a loose cannon. Can we afford to let guys like that slip away because the SRU only want people they can control?”
Control was never something the governing body were likely to have over Wright either. At least he has the self-awareness to recognise this limiting factor, even if his natural stubbornness means that he is never likely to properly accept the reasons why his pitch-side antics, media candour and general diplomacy has had such a debilitating effect on his coaching career.
“I’m a believer in telling people how it is. I don’t bullshit folk if I disagree. I was a terrible politician. I was on the SRU Council for two years and really enjoyed it, but I just thought the way some of the people behaved was terrible. If you are against something then say you are against it. I was being told things privately and then when it came to discussing these things at a meeting the same people would sit there on their hands and say nothing,” he says
“I disagree with foreign coaches because we aren’t even letting our coaches fail before we bring these guys in. We don’t know if our system is working because we have never given coaches a chance to fail.”
“And it is the same with protect players. When I was involved in Scotland under-19s and under-20s, for about eight years in a row I could see all these young guys coming through and in my eyes we weren’t giving them a fair chance. I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. Graham Lowe was the performance director and I asked him about the number of overseas players being parachuted into the Scottish game, and I told him that our young boys are getting disillusioned because where do they go from here? And he said that we were doing nothing wrong in terms of breaking IRB rules, and the SRU felt that was the best option when we don’t have strength in depth.”
“I just didn’t agree with that, so that’s what I said – and I’m quite comfortable about having challenged them on something I feel strongly about. Nobody has ever rigorously tested a policy by choosing not to ask the difficult questions.”
Wright is on a roll now.
“A lot of time you are saying it to prompt a heated discussion,” he admits. “The Scott Johnson scenario is a classic example. You have Murrayfield saying that this is one of the most important positions we have ever had to fill so it is really important we get it right, and then they appoint a guy who has never been a director of rugby before and I don’t think there was ever a job advert put out for that post. But it seems as though if you challenge certain people at Murrayfield then you can’t have any other reason than being a troublemaker.”
“All I’m trying to do is get the conversation going rather than just taking what Murrayfield says as the gospel truth. I think some of the things Mark Dodson has done are really good, but I also think some of the things he has done are really poor – and that includes ignoring club rugby because it doesn’t make any money. We have ignored the club game for so long that we are now suffering the consequences – the gap between the club game and the professional game is far greater than it ever needed to be.”
Referees are a long and well documented bugbear. He tells a story about being sent to anger management classes after an altercation with a whistler during the 2007 Junior World Cup in Ireland. He reckons that the mentor on that course wasted no time in sussing out that he is not a fundamentally angry man but simply reacted angrily to a particular episode.
He was advised that the next time he found himself in a similar situation he should take a deep breath and then whisper repeatedly under his breath that the referee is incompetent until he feels his frustration subsiding.
“It’s about finding that right coping mechanism. Sometimes I’ll have a smile on my face and it’s because I am laughing at a decision” he says. “But that’s because if I didn’t laugh I would cry.”
In truth, Wright still struggles to pull his shots when it comes to his favourite punch bags.
“In the heat of the moment I am not balanced but it’s not personal – it’s one of these things where you are going to get gut reactions. I come into the clubhouse after the game and I like to think the referee goes away thinking: He’s a prick on the sideline but he’s not a bad guy. That’s because I always try to give them positive feedback. I like to think I am honest and I am balanced,” he says.
“I remember coming into the committee room as a young coach and destroying referees. I was in their face and growling at them about everything and anything I thought they had got wrong. Now, I have learned over the years that: one – you are going to get these guys again so don’t piss them off; two – they don’t do it consciously, they’ve just got it wrong; three – we have one referee in the professional game, and he is Irish [Lloyd Linton], so we have not been producing great referees and all of us need to help the guys who are coming through to reach the level we all demand.”
“People say I slag off referees all the time but you’ve got to remember that they are a part of this product and if they are affecting what happens on the pitch then they have to be part of the conversation. If I talk about a referee ten times in a game then that is because, in my opinion, he has made ten controversial decisions. Sometimes I don’t speak about the referee at all.”
“We talk about this being an entertainment business and I think that’s important. For me, they are part of the big pantomime, and if that makes me the villain for saying what I think then at least I am playing my role.”
Referees might not get much leeway, but Wright has challenged a few preconceptions about his general rugby philosophy since returning to Boroughmuir – the club where he started his senior playing career as a 17-year-old – during the summer.
“People forget that I won two championships with Hawks playing some great rugby. I’ve always wanted to play an offloading game and it is something we work really hard on here. They look at me as an old prop who says things that I shouldn’t say and they assume I am some sort of dinosaur, but they’ve got the wrong idea in terms of how I coach teams,” he says.
“The last thing I always say on Thursday night and on a Saturday before the guys go out to play is: Remember, we are doing this for fun. We are here to enjoy ourselves. We all know it is going to be tough sometimes, but you’ve got to create an environment where guys generally have a smile on their face.”
“You let certain guys away with more than others. Our full-back, Dougie Steele, is a prime example – he’s a gobby wee shite but he’s quite funny with it. And other guys you don’t let get away with as much because they don’t have the ability to pull it off. It’s about knowing which guys fit into which category – which guys drive the team on with their attitude and which guys you need to keep on top of because if they say too much then the rest of the players get annoyed.”
“We’re trying to create an environment which people want to be involved in, by giving the game back to the players. We’re not being too proscriptive, we’re trying to give the guys on the pitch the tools to make their own decisions, so that they want to come back to training and they really want to get up on a Saturday and get out there and do something special.”
His boys certainly achieved something special last weekend when unbeaten Ayr came calling at Meggetland and were sent home with a completely unexpected bloody nose.
“It was really weird. The boys had changed their playlist [for the music in the changing room] to the theme tune for Last of the Mohicans, and when I was doing my team talk that was on in the background and there was just this real calmness. I don’t know if [Edinburgh pro] Jamie Ritchie being there helped,” says Wright.
“We went out and got 10-6 up having had what I thought was a perfectly good try chalked off, and when we came in at half-time that calmness was still there. It is not something I have ever sensed before.”
“Even Chris Laidlaw – who has been exceptional for us and is one of the best stand-offs in the league – said that up to half-time he didn’t think we could do it, but when we came out in the second half he was ready to believe.”
Next up is Hawks, who leapfrogged Ayr into top spot in the league last weekend with a giant victory over hapless Hawick.
“We are going to try it again on Saturday. Put The Last of the Mohicans on and that might be the tune that triggers it for them,” says Wright. “I think everyone thinks last weekend’s result is a one-off. The rest still don’t believe we can do it twice on the trot, but we do – I think Chris Laidlaw even believes it now.”
Images by Craig Watson – craigwatson.co.uk