AFTER a whirlwind courtship last summer, and an extended honeymoon since the union was officially confirmed in August, Danny Wilson’s new life as forwards coach of the Scotland rugby team finally got going last week when a 40-man squad congregated for a training camp in St Andrews ahead of next Saturday’s Autumn Test match against Wales at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff.
Wilson was committed to taking charge of the forwards at Wasps this season, but when he received an enquiry from the north about the possibility of taking over responsibility for the Scotland pack in place of Ulster-bound Dan McFarland, he jumped at the opportunity to link up with Gregor Townsend, who is a coach he clearly likes and admires.
“I got to know Gregor from preparing and playing against him over the years and at coaching conferences you go on in the summer when you get a bit of down time,” he explains. “I got to know him quite well – socialising at those types of things and networking – and I think his view on the game is something that I have always agreed with and [I’ve always] tried to follow a similar way of playing.
“I believe in that style of rugby, whether its attack, defence or set piece. Tying into that style and that philosophy is something that I am quite passionate about.”
Asked what he thinks Townsend saw in him, Wilson shrugs modestly.
“You will probably have to ask him,” he replies. “From my point of view: I am a detail coach, I probably follow a similar philosophy to Gregor and I’d like to think I am relatively innovative. Players at the top end of the game crave detail, wanting to learn as much as possible, so hopefully I can bring something to the party from that point of view.”
Wilson stayed out of the contract release negotiations, and insists that he would have thrown himself wholeheartedly into working with Wasps if an agreement hadn’t been brokered – but, fortunately for him, the club he jilted at the altar took a sympathetic view of his situation.
The former hooker – who retired from the game at 25, due to a degenerative disc problem in his back, without ever climbing above club player status – is what you might call a career coach. Born in Weston-super-Mare in the South West of England, Wilson moved to Wales in 1998 to study for a sports coaching degree, and apart from a couple of short stints working with London Welsh and Bristol, he has never left – until now.
“I moved into the Welsh coaching system [after university] and worked my way up from development work, through academy, to performance with the national age-grade sides and the regions,” he explains.“I’ve gained a huge amount from that system.”
He was named head coach at Cardiff Blues in the summer of 2015 after spells at London Welsh [head coach: 2008-10], the Dragons [assistant coach: 2010-12], Scarlets [assistant coach: 2012-14] and Bristol [assistant coach: 2014-15]. He also guided the Wales Under-20s team to third then second placed finishes in the Junior World Championships in 2012 and 2013.
It was a big appointment for an Englishman, with no professional playing pedigree, who was still only 38. Especially as the Blues had a lot of pressing off-field problems at the time in terms of finance, ownership and various issues related to the developments of the Arms Park. But he took it all in his stride, and it was the coach rather than the club who decided it was time to part company at the end of last season – because the role, he believed, couldn’t deliver what he wanted to put into, and take out of, the game.
“A lot changed during my period and it’s great to see now that more investment has gone into the Blues and that they have new staff and some great players there, too,” he explains. “But, from my point of view, this was a great opportunity – likewise at Wasps – to get back into depth coaching and the areas I specialise in.
“I think there are two types of head coach, a head coach/director of rugby and a head coach/on-field coaching, and I am a head coach/on-field coaching,” he elaborates.
“What got me to that position [at the Blues] was the detail in terms of forward play, set-piece, contact area – they were, if you like, my depth of coaching. Whereas my breadth of coaching was learning everything that goes with the job in terms management of staff, management of players, the programme, recruitment …
“If you don’t have the equivalent of general managers and people like that around you, you end up being dragged away from the on-field and I didn’t want that.
“What was great at Cardiff Blues, once I had made my decision that I was going to move on, was that I could concentrate purely on coaching in terms of on-field and tying in with the rest of my staff – and I think we had great success at the back end of that final year with winning the Challenge Cup and the getting back into Champions Cup rugby.
“So, I had great experiences being a head coach but I want to be on the field coaching. I want to get back to my depth of coaching, which is what I am appointed to do here.”
The green, green grass of home?
The Welsh connection certainly adds an intriguing extra dimension to his first official assignment in six days’ time.
“My wife [Rachel Poolman, who earned 26 caps playing stand-off for the Welsh women’s team] and kids are Welsh-speaking, it’s their first language, so my daughters are now doing their first lessons in English, which has been interesting,” chuckles Wilson. “I said to my wife: ‘You’re not going to believe who the first game is against!’
“I’ve coached a lot of those players individually and collectively, when I was with the Wales Under-20s and through the regions, and now I’m going to be coaching against them.
“Gats [Warren Gatland] and his group of coaches have done an extremely good job over the years and you can see the success they’ve had. I worked closely with Shaun Edwards [Wales’ defence guru] last year and know what a quality coach he is. There are two sides to the coin – there are bits and pieces about them I’m aware of, but there’s also a group of people who know a huge amount about me as a coach as well.
“It’s a big part of my coaching and a big part of my life, but now I move on to the next chapter.”
Sliding doors moment
It could have ended up very differently. Wilson was asked to take care of the Welsh forwards during the summer tour of 2017 but had to pull out at the last minute “due to bombshells going off at Cardiff Blues”.
“I had to make a really tough decision that my day job needed to take priority,” he reflects, before concluding that things have perhaps turned out for the best. “I’ve been in that [Welsh] system for a long time, done a lot of work within the national set-up, but everything I heard from Gregor was extremely persuasive. Scotland are in the right place and are moving forward. A lot of what was sold to me was extremely convincing.
“From the outside looking in, the journey that Scotland have taken has been phenomenal. Hopefully, I can add to that after getting in there to assess the environment – and seeing what I can put my own print on whilst dovetailing with the excellent work that has already been done. I’m excited and very motivated.”
One area where Scotland have struggled recently is pressure line-outs. Wilson’s predecessor, McFarland, explained during the last Six Nations that the lack of accuracy there is connected to the team’s overall desire to get the ball back into play quickly in order to maintain the tempo of the game.
“One of the big lessons I learned at Cardiff was that your best set-piece team might not necessarily be your best team to go and win games of rugby,” agrees the new man in charge of making sure the team manufacture high quality set-piece possession.
“As an example, I’d be putting out a back-row of Ellis Jenkins, Josh Navidi and Nick Williams. Now as a pure forwards coach, there will be issues at line-out time because you’ve got two out-and-out sevens who are probably not renowned for their line-out work, and Nick Williams who definitely isn’t.
“But those three players were the backbone of the wins we had. Coming back into an assistant coach role now, I’ve got a better understanding of what makes the team win, and we all have to contribute to that from our different areas.
“We want a line-out that functions extremely well, and if we win 100% line-out ball every week I’ll be an extremely happy man, but not if we’re losing games of rugby. We’ve got to find the balance that brings the group together to win games – sometimes that means understanding that you have to solve the problem in a different way.
“Gregor wants to play a specific type of game that’s not a million miles away from what we were trying to play at Cardiff. A high-paced, high-tempo game to fit the players we have in Scotland. My job is to get that balance.”
There has been a bit of noise about the pros and cons of arranging the Wales Test outside the international player release window, but it really isn’t fair to expect Wilson to comment on that.
“I still think the opportunity for those players to play at the Principality in front of what I know will still be an extremely passionate Welsh crowd, that experience is huge,” is his diplomatic conclusion. “In World Cup years, you’re looking for opportunities to test players at that level and see them play in that kind of intensity.”