Men’s Senior XV head coach Capt Mal Roberts (Royal Logistics Corps) says that a key priority when rugby eventually returns will be giving the Army’s players a positive environment in which they can perform at their peak.
Roberts was appointed as head coach in April 2020, stepping up from the Under-23s to succeed Maj Burnie Burnard MBE, who he had assisted with the Army Senior XV in both the Inter-Service Championship and at the 2015 International Defence Rugby Competition, when the Army reached the final against Fiji.
After a stellar playing career which included 26 Senior caps with the Army – 12 as captain – and 19 appearances for the Combined Services, along with representative honours with the Barbarians and nine seasons at Newbury during the Berkshire outfit’s heyday, Roberts went straight into coaching once he retired in 2009, progressing through the ranks to his current appointment.
Although competitive and contact rugby is on hiatus during the pandemic Roberts has been clear in setting out his goals, starting with the framework for the Army to retain the Inter-Services Championship title.
“It’s not just about me creating an environment, more importantly the players have to hold each other accountable,” he says in the current edition of the Army Rugby Pod. “It’s about creating a ‘no fear’ culture where the players aren’t afraid to make mistakes. In representative rugby you put enough pressure on yourself to perform, so I want to have that team environment where the players want to be there, and – more importantly – to have fun and enjoy themselves. When you enjoy an environment you buy into it, you work that little bit harder, and the rewards are better.
“Post-retirement in 2009 I’ve been coaching in the Army set-up in various capacities, as kicking coach, then as an assistant, then backs coach and now head coach. You can look at it as earning your spurs and learning about what you offer as a coach. The Academy head coach came up and I saw it as a great opportunity to bring on the next generation of Army players. It was diving a bit into the unknown but was the next part of the journey and I tried to bring a fresh, professional approach to it that was a direct reflection of the senior level.
“I was fortunate that in my first year there were some really talented boys in that environment. We went on to win the Inter-Services that year, which was the first time the Army had done that in four years, and the reaction of the players was fantastic.”
The framework also needs talented and ambitious players for it to succeed, and Roberts believes that the processes are in place in this area, too, adding: “We have individuals within training establishments who flash up players that have come through the system, who when they do their initial interviews have highlighted that they have got pedigree, such as ex-Academy players from Premiership clubs.
“So I like to think that we have that system in place and that not many players will fall through the cracks. There will always be some individuals who do because they want to get through training and don’t broadcast their rugby experience. Then when they come out of training they then make it known to people that they have got some pedigree.”
In the extended interview Roberts talks about his rugby journey, including the honour of being called up by the Barbarians into the Mobbs Memorial Match, sharing a dressing room at Twickenham with Rugby World Cup winners Martin Johnson, Lawrence Dallaglio and Will Greenwood, and what it meant to him to pull on the various representative shirts within Forces rugby.
He also talks about his coaching influences, such as Ben Ryan – who guided Fiji to the 2016 Olympic title and who Roberts played under at Newbury.
“There are elements of things that Ben did, the fun aspect and enjoyment, but also the other side of it was holding the players accountable,” he says. “It was fun to play in. He was years ahead of his time with his philosophies and coaching techniques which people are trying to emulate now. There are some aspects that I’ve taken from Ben, but you need to be true to yourself and stick to what’s important to you.”
Roberts also has clear advice for players who are ambitious to represent the Senior Men’s XV, saying: “For me and my coaches it is about watching as many matches as we can so we can find all the best talent we can to bring in the squad.
“Playing for your Unit and your Corps are the best stages to go out and sell yourself. That’s how you get recommended by your coaches. That’s where I go to look for talent. If you’re good enough then that’s how you get recognised and picked for Army rugby.
“It’s obviously a difficult time in terms of Covid, and I want to make sure that when we’re ready to go and get back playing rugby that the soldiers and officers have got themselves physically and mentally ready for the season ahead. Once we get the green light the path back to playing is going to be quite steep.”
You can listen to the full interview now Army Rugby Union Podcast
Words © Chris Wearmouth, Images © Alligin Photography