Coaches from Canterbury and West Coast had the unique opportunity to pick the brains of some of the biggest names in rugby league in Christchurch this morning.

With the cooperation of the New Zealand Kiwis and Great Britain Rugby League Lions – who square off in the second Test of their series at Rugby League Park on Saturday night – Canterbury Rugby League hosted an intimate Q&A session at the BNZ Centre on Cashel Street.

Lions coach, the legendary Wayne Bennett, and his assistants, Salford City coach Ian Watson and London Broncos coach Danny Ward, were joined by Kiwis mentor and Wests Tigers coach Michael Maguire, and his assistants Stacey Jones and Ben Gardiner to answer the locals’ questions.

They provided their insights on a wide range of topics: the huge role man-management plays in coaching; riding the highs and lows of the job; how cultural diversity has changed the coaching role; how to identify and encourage leaders within teams; what they look for in a player; the game-day experience; balancing the strenous requirements of rugby league coaching with family life; relationship-building – and knowing when to continue or break those relationships; their various influences through their coaching careers; and the non-negotiable requirement of loving rugby league.

Those in attendance certainly appreciated the chance to see current Souths coach Bennett loosen up outside of the usual press conference environment – the seven-time premiership winner even managed to crack a few jokes.

Part of Maguire’s role as New Zealand coach is fostering grassroots and pathways for players and coaches around the country.

“I started back at junior level in the under-14s and 15s, and I coach my sons’ under-10s and 12s now – I’m a big advocate for coaches in New Zealand and I want to see a lot more coaches coming through the ranks,” Maguire told Canterbury Rugby League.

“We’ve got a lot of Kiwi kids running around in the NRL, so I’m really keen to try and encourage pathways for coaches here. I always encourage the Kiwi coaches wanting to come over and spend time – whether that’s with an NRL team or if I can give them an opportunity to work with myself or someone else – that’s how you learn.

“You’ve got to be prepared to get out and talk to coaches and learn about different styles. You learn a lot about yourself through experience – that’s the only way you can do it.

“Like [Bennett] said, you’ve got be coaching and surround yourself with people that have been there before, because you can learn a lot from those people. Even in my position, I’m forever getting to as many teams as I can – whether it’s through soccer, netball, AFL, NFL – I think if you spend time talking to coaches you pick up little bits of man-management (techniques).”

After serving a valuable apprenticeship under Craig Bellamy at Melbourne, Maguire won a Super League grand final with Wigan in 2010 and an NRL title with the Rabbitohs two years later. But despite being a first-grade player with Canberra and Adelaide, his route to top-level coaching was far from traditional – he tread a similar path to the one many of our local coaches are currently on.

“I fell out of the game through an injury at an early age,” Maguire explained.

“I wanted to make sure I got to where I am now, so I set out by going back to the young kids and learning through coaching kids, then slowly getting myself into an NRL club, which was the Canberra Raiders where I was fortunately from.

“I started through strength and conditioning and the pathways to allow me to get into coaching just opened up. But I was working at the time – I think for three years I was doing early mornings and late nights – and I wasn’t sure where it would end up. But it’s certainly taken me to some great places around the world, to meet so many great people within the game of rugby league and also many other sports.

“It’s a big piece for the Kiwi coaches, the pathways, and I’m  proud that Stacey (Jones) is here and Nathan (Cayless) and there’s other coaches I’m trying to bring in. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a rep player either – they’re fortunate to have fallen into this arena but there’s lots of other coaches that I’m trying to get into this space.”

Four-time CRL grand final-winning coach, and Rockcote Canterbury Bulls and New Zealand Residents mentor Andrew Auimatagi was among the local contingent soaking up every word from the professionals.

“It’s just awesome to hear them confirm some of the stuff that maybe we knew, but it’s just really powerful to hear it from those guys that have so much knowledge and experience,” Auimatagi enthused.

“It had us hanging on the edge of our seat.”

While former NRL players would appear to have the inside running for coaching roles at the highest levels, sought-after opportunities are available for the right people from outside that channel.

An outstanding club and representative record puts Auimatagi in good stead for progressing within the game – and the Q&A with Bennett, Maguire and co. provided confirmation the coaching cream will rise to the top with the requisite work ethic.

“Those guys emphasised you’ve got to keep working hard and really dig into any role you take on. We all love the game – that really came through from them – you’ve got to love what you do, and you’re going to have to sacrifice here and there.

“Ultimately if you’ve got that passion you’ll find a way to get to where you want to be. It’s cool to get an insight into that.”

Juggling family life and a job as a teacher with several rugby league hats, Auimatagi has a deep appreciation of the huge demands of coaching – and how to counter those.

“(You need) really supportive family, supportive wife and friends,” he said.

“Coaching isn’t just a one-man thing, you’ve got a lot of important staff around you – like those guys alluded to – so it’s just knowing when it gets too busy, how to keep that balance and what needs to change.”

Auimatagi is stepping down from the Linwood Keas head coach role after four consecutive grand final triumphs, handing the 2020 reins to a pair of his former charges.

“The time’s right and we had a bit of a succession plan in mind and that’s going to come to fruition with Aga Fiso and Iuma Mulitalo taking over.

“I’m looking forward to seeing them take the team and the club to a new level. I’ll always be in the background there somewhere helping with the club and just seeing it go forward.”

Finally, at the end of a long and hectic season, Auimatagi has time to relax and reflect on everything he and his teams achieved in 2019.

Aside from another Keas success, Auimatagi led the Rockcote Canterbury Bulls through an unbeaten NZRL National Premiership round-robin campaign and to their first final since 2015, before steering a New Zealand Residents side boasting six Bulls in the starting line-up to a victory over the English Community Lions.

“I’m really proud of the season. We definitely ticked a lot of the boxes that we’d set for our goals for that Bulls group.

“To see six of them represent their country, it’s a really proud moment for all our the Bulls’ staff and our region, just to see how hard they’ve worked in club and rep footy, and then to get the rewards at the end is pretty cool.”


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