Sgt Gerhard Wessels (RE) says that creating a culture where players enjoy their time with the Royal Engineers’ Corps Championship set-up has been important in getting the team to within sight of another League 1 final.
The Sappers won their first Corps Championship title in seven seasons last May, and have shrugged off an opening round reverse against the Royal Logistics Corps to run up three successive wins which have put them top of the table going into the new year.
Now in his third season as Head Coach, Sgt Wessels is also an experienced operator at all levels of Army rugby, and his commitment to engendering a positive environment comes from as much a practical perspective as cultural.
“In my first season I wanted to make sure that everything off the field and the camaraderie was there for people to want to come and play Corps rugby,” he says. “We are an open group, the cohesion is really there and people want to play for us. I think this is a big part of our success at the moment. I don’t think we were the best Corps side last season, but we had togetherness and hopefully that will take us through this season as well.
As Head Coach, Sgt Wessels has worked hard to create a culture of togetherness.
Image – Alligin Photography © Lee Crabb
“Our time as coaches with the players is limited. They turn up on a Monday morning, we have a video session and then sessions on Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning, and then an afternoon team run.
“To make a player better and to work on their skill, you can’t actually do that at Corps level. When I’m coaching at my civvie club for a whole season and pre-season it’s more realistic to make a player a better player, while in Corps rugby it’s more important to get the culture and environment good and enjoyable.
“We had a hiccup against RLC at their place, and since then things have been going our way. At the moment Sapper rugby is in a good place. It’s not just about the results, we enjoy each other’s company and I think that takes us over the hurdle that we might have fallen at before in the last seven years. People are playing for each other, for the management, and we are like a family group.”
Having won the Corps Championship last term, Sgt Wessels says that there needed to be an adjustment in approach, from one aiming to reach the top to staying there, which is a new challenge all of itself.
“When we met up the season we won the league I had challenged the players to tell me their goals for the year,” he says. “When we got to the final it was nice to draw from all those points, and 90 percent of the players achieved their goals.
“This season when we met up for training camp I wanted the challenge for them to be retaining the title and their goals. That was the main focus. We have a different challenge now. When you get to the top it’s harder to stay there, so the challenge was to keep improving and not just rely on last year.”
However, the campaign got off to a shaky start, as the RLC put together a good performance to record a 44-20 win.
A tough opening match of the season saw the Sappers go down to a strong RLC side.
Image © Sapper Rugby
“We did go under-strength in round one, especially in the forwards,” Sgt Wessels explains. “We blooded 12 or 13 players in the 23 on that day who made their first Corps appearances. It was a good experience for those guys. Going forward in the league and in future seasons, the guys who were involved that day have had a reality check as to what Corps rugby is all about. They’ll be better for it going forward.
“We didn’t play in the Corps festival, which we normally use to give guys an opportunity to see how they cope.
“Corps rugby is a different beast, and it takes players time to adjust to the different level of physicality. There’s not one specific reason, but the likes of the Infantry and the RLC have a lot of Pacific Island players, and not many of the players who play national rugby in civvie street play against Islanders in those numbers. Yes, you can get hit late and hit hard, but that’s part of Corps rugby.”
The Sappers may be top of the tree at the moment, but Round 5 sees them head to REME for another repeat of the 2022 final. Sgt Wessels is well aware that a win will all-but-secure the Engineers’ place at another Aldershot showpiece occasion, but also that his players and coaches alike need to focus on the 80 minutes at hand, not what could come in the future.
“Playing REME away in January will be a tough, tough game, as you see with the league table being so tight at the moment,” he says. “For myself I want us to be taking one game at a time and not looking too far ahead. If we do that then the rest will look after itself.
“The players will have a nice Christmas break, we’ll meet up on the 16th, and then that week the message will be focusing on that week and get that game out of the way. I will want to take the pressure off the team; it’s about going out there and enjoying their rugby.”
To see all the results and fixtures across all the Corps Championship leagues head to www.armyrugbyunion.org.uk/competition/corps-championship
Words © Old Dogs, New Tricks
Header Image – Alligin Photography © Lee Crabb
Featured Image © Corps of Royal Engineers