Coaching News – April 2022

Interview with Graham Turner, UBCOB Ravens U19 Coach and BC U19 Coaching Staff

We had a chance to interview Graham Turner about the success of the Ravens U19 program. He had some interesting insights, the interview is below.

BCRN: Hi Graham, we noted that in the recent announcement of the Canada U18 camp, of the 22 BC players in attendance, 8 were from the Ravens. That’s over a third and quite an accomplishment. What can you tell us about the Ravens U19 program and how it has developed in recent years?

GT: Hi Mark, it is an accomplishment and definitely one that we’re proud of. All those players selected are deserving of visibility at higher levels and we hope to have more there next year. The Ravens U19 program has come a long way over the past few years, and it’s been really exciting to be part of that journey. We’ve had really phenomenal support from the club at every level from our executive downwards, and we benefit from having close connections with surrounding schools.

As the coach leading the program my focus has always been on providing the best rugby experience for my players, both on and off the field. We try to do things a bit differently in training to keep it interesting, bring in guest coaches from time to time, and also benefit from training with our senior men’s team once a week.

Also, if you ask your players to step up and be more active in organizing and running sessions they generally are bursting at the seams to do so. I think every club age grade program faces similar challenges: player availability, interest, and competing with other sports. These are all solvable problems provided you have a really engaged, core group of players which we’ve been fortunate enough to have each year.

BCRN: We also noted the Ravens toured to California recently to play the LA Giltinis Academy, what can you tell us about that experience and how that came about?

GT: With COVID wiping out rugby tours for the past two years, it felt like the right time to get things going again and to start looking at traveling options. My friend Ben Lesage who’s playing in LA offered to put me in contact with some of the Giltinis administrative staff and we set everything up from there. It was a phenomenal experience to test ourselves against high quality opposition and I think there’s mutual interest in having this as an annual match moving forward, which will keep players coming back to the Ravens.

I think rugby tours are an accelerant to have players bond and get to know each other, which ultimately creates better results on the field but also really long-lasting friendships. The Ravens experience should be the best one of their rugby careers and I think going on tour is a big part of that. Everyone remembers going on tour, even if you can’t share the stories!

That being said, it is a lot of logistical and financial work to get this going. We were lucky to have the Ravens executive team support us through fundraising, without that the tour wouldn’t have happened. I was also really fortunate to have some amazing parents step up and help with basically everything off the field. You need that help if you want to do something like that.

BCRN: What can we do in BC at the club level to raise the profile of the age-grade programs. I know in chatting you had mentioned one idea, that was to hold the age-grade games on Saturday to integrate them, perhaps as curtain raisers, for the senior matches.

GT: There’s a gap right now between playing at the high school or club level with your friends, and then being thrust out into the wilderness that is senior men’s rugby. It’s a completely different experience and I think because of that we’re seeing a lot of young players stop playing and lose interest in rugby. At our last training session before the BC final this year I had at least five senior players come out to help me. When my players see a guy like Theo Sauder, Aaron McLelland or Chris Taylor spending their time to help them get better, that’s a big deal.

One of the areas that clubs can really help facilitate that transition is having more engagement between their age grade teams and senior teams. Being able to train together and get to know each other is a massive asset that a lot of us aren’t taking advantage of. When I was a mini I would play in the morning, and then stick around all day with my friends to watch the senior games. Making that 1st XV roster one day seemed like a really big deal, and it kept me playing and motivated.

The concept of playing age-grade games on Saturday is an idea to have these club type environments come to life and keep players coming back. I think there are a few clubs that have really good consistency across all levels, but why not have the U19s be curtain raisers for the Div 1 games? More senior players would come early to watch the age-grade games, and more U19 players would stick around to watch the senior games. It’s not a silver bullet, but it’s one way to create a bit of stickiness for clubs to retain players.

BCRN: How important is the club/school relationship at the U19 level? What can be done to improve that?

GT: That relationship is everything! Without creating those connections you are dead in the water in terms of player recruitment. Since the Grade 11 and 12 school season is only in the spring, you have this group of rugby players who want to play in the fall, so positioning the club season as a way for them to improve and be on top of their game is a way to make players interested in being part of your club.

It does take a while to build those relationships, but once you do it’s incredibly valuable. St. George’s, Kitsilano High School, and a few others have been critical partners in the success of the Ravens, and it’s mutually beneficial because the players keep playing rugby and it leads to better performances for the schools. It’s also really rewarding to see the players you’ve coached be successful in different environments and go on to make representative teams.

BCRN: One of the long term problems has been the drop off of players from school to club. What are your thoughts on managing that issue?

GT: I think it comes down to two things: what are you offering as a club, and are you creating connections with your players? You can’t expect to use the Field of Dreams strategy to be effective, if you build it I promise you they will not come.

So marketing your club’s programs effectively is key. Leveraging social media is key. Go to where your players are, rather than waiting for them to come to you, and have a strong message. We just had a really successful season, and a lot of our players got selected for the Canada U18 camp – so if you want to win championships and have the opportunity to play for Canada, come to the Ravens!

Also, every player wants to play for a coach that makes training valuable and fun, and who they know as more than just a guy holding a whistle. Ask your players what they like or want to do more of at training, ask them to run some drills or manage their own training games. Create connections with them as human beings, rather than just assets on a field. All of those things create a program that players really want to be a part of. As coaches, invest in your own development as well, don’t expect someone to come to your house and teach you how to run a drill. There are so many resources online, but reaching out to coaches that are coaching at a higher level than you is a really great way to learn quickly and make connections.

BCRN: Rugby in Canada competes with a lot of high profile sports for the top athletes. Any ideas on how rugby can raise its profile to attract youth athletes who aren’t from a rugby background?

GT: I think rugby in Canada has taken a hit on the marketability front over the past few years. There have been a few too many negative pieces in the media about all the things that we could do better, or various crises, and far too few people highlighting all the good stuff that’s been happening. We just had a two year long pandemic and this season almost every club has been able to field at least two teams. That’s f###ing amazing!

I think as a community we get sidetracked by looking at Rugby Canada as this entity that prevents us from moving forward, when in fact this sport has always been about the clubs and schools that do grassroots work. The people who paint the lines on the field, or pour the beers in the clubhouse, or come out to training when it’s raining and dark on a Tuesday night will still be around regardless of anything else that’s happening, so let’s prioritize acknowledging and celebrating their efforts.

Complaining about RC is fine, but what are you doing to grow the game and provide awesome experiences at the club or provincial level? Nobody is getting rich off of rugby in this country, club coaches don’t get paid. So why do we do it? Because it’s important to us to keep this thing going, and at some point you had a really great rugby experience that made you want to stick around.

Players will ultimately choose the sport that gives them the best chance to reach their potential, and have fun doing it. If I coach two or three guys this year that can help Canada qualify for the next World Cup then I’ll feel that I’ve made great use of my time, and maybe one of them will be coaching the Ravens U19 in a few years!

BCRN: Thanks Graham, and good luck to the BC U19 team this summer.

GT: Thanks, Mark!

Posted in Coaching.