Captain Mal Roberts (RLC) says that the time was right from both professional and personal standpoint for him to stand down as the Army Senior Men’s Head Coach.
Capt Roberts made the announcement that he will be drawing down the curtain on a glittering 25-year career with Army Rugby in early November.
The news may have come as a surprise to some, not least because the Army are heading into the 2023 Inter-Services Championship as the reigning champions, the title having been won in memorable fashion at the end of Captain Roberts’ first year at the helm.
And while Capt Roberts himself acknowledges that he had not been planning to step down at the start of the season, circumstances came together to make it a natural decision to make.
“It’s a change of direction in life,” he says. “There was no intention for me to stand down, I was looking ahead to completing my tenure as Head Coach, but a job became available three weeks before I signed off, which I then got, and I let Colonel Sandy [Fitzpatrick, Director of Men’s Senior Rugby] know.
“I’ve done 28 years in the military, so it is time for something a bit different. I’m really looking forward to it.
“I wanted to leave on my terms, like I did when I retired from playing, and this did come about as a shock to me as much as anyone, but when the time’s right, the time’s right, and everything lined up for me in about a month. It was a really quick turnaround.”
Capt Roberts is signing off to return to his native Cornwall to take up a Senior Facilities Manager role with DIO next summer, with his last day in uniform coming at the end of January.
Although it has only been a few weeks since the announcement was made the amount of empty space in the diary which was previously filled with rugby commitments is a reminder of the time which was dedicated to the red shirt.
“Stepping down as Head Coach and then signing off, even if you don’t admit to the pressures at the time, after the event you definitely realise how much added pressure there is, not just with a busy day job as a QM Tech in the largest regiment in the British Army, but also as a volunteer as the Head Coach of the Army team, which is a full-time job in itself.
“From my perspective I’m surprised how and what and when you do, because when you step back from it you realise how massive a commitment it is. So you do ask yourself how you kept the plates spinning.”
Nevertheless the hard work was all worth it when Capt Jamie Miller (AAC) lifted the Inter-Services Championship trophy at Twickenham after the eventful and thrilling win over the Royal Navy.
As Head Coach Mal lead the Army Senior Men to the 2023 Inter Service title.
Image © Army v Navy Match
This was the culmination of the years of uncertainty during the pandemic lockdowns and getting the red shirt programme back up and running after a two-season absence.
“For me the hardest part was the two years in the pandemic,” Capt Roberts says. “It wasn’t two years sitting around. It was engaging with players, coaches and management, it was laying on Microsoft activities, it was leadership stuff and fitness stuff. But being apart was hard. When you’re together you’re face to face and doing what we all love to do, which is playing and coaching rugby.
“We had to help each other through that period, and everyone has to remember the impact on the mental health and physical wellbeing of the players. Rugby players are competitive beasts; they need that engagement on a physical level. So to lay stuff on during the pandemic to feed the competitive nature was crucial.
“The players and coaches all helped each other through some dark times. We all went through phases which weren’t our best times, and all of us became tighter.
“Then we came out the other side and won Inter-Services. That was testament to the group as a whole, and every single person involved.”
Having worked his way through the coaching ranks with both the senior team and Under-23s, Capt Roberts had clear ideas of the culture he wanted to create within the squad, one which was focused as much on opening up access to a broader range of players as achieving success.
“When I came into the role I wanted to create an open door policy,” he says. “There was always a bit of a perception that it was a closed shop and that only a select few got to play for the Army, so when I came in I wanted to have the open trial. If people were good enough they would get an invite to play in a fixture and put themselves in with a fighting chance for Inter-Services.
“In my first season I capped eight new players, who took their opportunity, and the feedback from the players was that the honest approach we had made them hungry and wanting to come back. They trialled, they were good, they played and won the Inter-Services.
“This year we had 50 or 60 players who turned up to trial, and there might be a few others who will get taken on to play. There is a good player base there, and while Tim [Osman, interim Head Coach] might want to play in a different way that’s what makes it exciting.
“I know Tim really well and have already done a handover with him for the things which had been planned for the season. It’s time for someone else to come in, take the reins, and take it to the next level. I wish Tim all the success which I’m sure he’ll bring to that appointment.”
From personal, professional and sporting perspectives, the end of January will mark the end of an era, and conversation inevitably turns to what Capt Roberts will be taking with him into his next chapter.
“There are so many memories and it’s unfair and unjust to highlight a few!” he laughs.
To date, Mal is the most successful Army Captain in history, winning the Inter Service title an unprecedented five times as Skipper.
Images © Army Rugby Union Archives
“In terms of playing career, the highlight for me was 2003, which was the ultimate year. I scored 26 points at Twickenham, including a try from the halfway line, kicked everything and as Captain received the trophy from Princess Anne. I played for the Barbarians in the Mobbs Memorial Match and for England Counties.
“We went to New Zealand and beat their Army, both twice there and here, and beating the Barbarians with Combined Services at Devonport, doing the coin toss with Doddie Weir, who was captaining the Barbarians.
“Then in my civilian rugby there was playing and captaining Newbury in the Championship when Ben Ryan was Coach.
“I’ve not done a proper reflection yet and all the accolades genuinely don’t sit easily with me, but when my wife and I went to the Centenary Dinner she was flicking through the book and saying to me that she didn’t realise I was the most successful Army Captain, had scored the most points or the most points in a single game, and I didn’t realise that either! It’s really nice for someone else to capture that.
“Coaching wise, I’ve been fortunate to have been involved with some great sides over the years. From Launceston while in civvy street and loads of other different clubs, I couldn’t pick one over the other. Military-wise, being a Head Coach at Army Navy and sitting in the hot seat was the pinnacle and was really pleasing and rewarding.
“The kudos and accolades you do or don’t get are all worthwhile when you see the smiles on the boys’ faces and share a beer with them afterwards. That’s what makes all those late nights and early mornings worthwhile!”
But now, with the reins handed over to Lt Col Tim Osman to lead the coaches, staff and players into 2023, Capt Roberts’ focus is now on his own transition and a long-anticipated return to the South West, adding: “For the family it’s always been an aspiration to go home when I retired.
“I left home at 17 to join the Army and while I played for Cornwall I’d love to get involved in coaching somewhere. I think I’ve got something to offer. But it would be nice to step away from it for a minute to be an avid supporter and get embedded into my new job. Then you never know what might happen!”
Words © New Dogs, Old Tricks
Header and Featured Image – Alligin Photography © Cat Goryn