DANNY Wilson’s first two years in Scotland have been fairly low profile, and his move from Scotland assistant coach to Glasgow Warriors head coach was not accompanied by the fanfare which greeted the arrival of his predecessor, Dave Rennie, three years earlier. But Wilson is in the spotlight now all right, and, after rounding off last season with a win and a loss in the two derbies against Edinburgh, is ready to begin his new job in earnest.
Forced to retire from playing at 25 because of a chronic back condition, he has been a coach for nearly two decades now. He was forwards coach with the Dragons, Scarlets and Bristol as well as Scotland, he has been head coach of Wales Under-20s and held the same post with Cardiff Blues for three years from 2015.
STUART BATHGATE: You were born in the West Country of England but are very much associated with Welsh rugby. Tell us a little about your background and how that move came about.
“My parents still live in Weston-super-Mare: I was born there and my schooling was there. I played in Weston-super-Mare and I’m very proud to have played for a club which my father is still involved in, Weston Hornets.
“But I went over to Wales in 1997, something like that. I did a degree there, did my whole rugby education there through the Welsh system, and I played there too.
“I met and married a Welsh woman there, my kids were born in Wales, my wife and kids are Welsh-speaking first language; they’re West Walians. It’s a very traditional Welsh upbringing that my kids had in Welsh-speaking schools before we moved to Scotland.
“So in terms of born and bred, I’m English. But in terms of the rugby side of things, I have a huge affinity for Welsh players and the Welsh system, and when you live and work in Wales for as long as I did, you become immersed in that rugby culture. Certainly I’m proud of my involvements with Wales, and I was very proud to coach Wales Under-20s.
“Yeah, it’s a strange one. Rugby-wise I would probably class myself as more Welsh than English, but as a person I’m an Englishman.”
Your accent sounds closer to Cardiff than Bristol these days.
“Yeah, I’ve lived there for so long, I suppose. A lot of my early coaching was in places like Treorchy, Rhondda Valley, Cynon Valley – really strong-Welsh-accent areas. And you’re coaching young players, so you probably pick up a fair bit there. Then when I coached at Scarlets, everything is in Welsh, from the Tannoy announcements to the songs you sing in the changing rooms if you’ve won are Welsh songs, which I struggled to pick up, not being a Welsh speaker.
“My wife’s side of the family live in Llanelli and are huge Scarlets fans. When I go home with her, there’s a lot of Welsh speaking, but I don’t speak it myself.”
In Scotland we can often be envious of countries such as Wales which have that deep rugby culture. Since coming up here, did you notice any deficiencies in our game because of that lack of depth?
“At times it’s almost a religion in Wales – it’s a huge, huge part of the culture. I played for Treorchy for a few years, and it was the centre of the community. Tuesday and Thursday nights lots of people would go down there, and there would be dos during the week. It was an eye-opener for me.
“One of the differences I see is through the academy. A lot of players that come into the Scottish system have come from big rugby schools – maybe the majority of the young players. In Wales it’s a little bit different. Schools rugby is still big and important, but a lot of kids come through club rugby – and come from not-privileged backgrounds.”
It has been said that, whereas in Wales a lot of players have had to fight hard to make it as professionals, Scottish players sometimes have it too easy. Is that a difference you’ve noticed here?
“I see more a rugby player that’s extremely knowledgeable, who will need justifications for certain things that you’re coaching – which tests you as a coach and make sure you’re not just telling them what and they’ll do it. They want some justification and understanding.
“So I think it promotes a really intelligent rugby player, which I think is a great thing in Scotland. And I’m not saying it isn’t in Wales, but there some of the lads I’ve worked with will be more ‘Tell me what to do and I’ll do it’.
“I’m not saying one is better than the other: it’s just a little bit of a difference. But outside of that things are very similar. You’ve got some real tough kids in Scotland I’ve coached; likewise in Wales you’ve got some real intelligent pros. And then probably like any environment you’ve got some pros that need a kick up the backside every now and then, in Scotland and Wales.
“So there is a difference in general backgrounds, but in my short time in Scotland I’ve been impressed by the rugby knowledge and leadership potential here. However, we need to grow the game and the academy system to get more of it – to get the greater depth that is needed in Glasgow and with Scotland.”
It must have been a wrench to be forced to retire from playing so young. But given how your career has progressed since, do you see it as a blessing in disguise?
“Hundred per cent. Looking back it was a massive blessing. I’d already accepted that I was only ever going to go so far as a player – I wasn’t good enough and didn’t have the physical attributes to go on to earn a good living from the game as a player.
“So quite early I knew I needed a back-up, a Plan B. I’d already done a bit of coaching at my local club, so I knew what I wanted to do: I wanted to go to UWIC, which was renowned as a rugby-playing university – they played in Division One in Wales.
“So I did a sports coaching degree at UWIC – it’s Cardiff Met now – and I did it under Kevin Bowring, the old Wales coach, who was head of rugby there. I had a huge education from him.
“I’m 44 years old and I would argue I’m still a relatively young head coach. However, I have a wealth of experience of coaching and learning my trade – and making my errors when they don’t hurt you. I think a lot of coaches nowadays finish playing and drop into coaching right at the top end of the game. They haven’t had a chance to make mistakes and find their feet in what they really believe in as a coach. And when they do make those mistakes, they get hurt really quickly in their career.
“Whereas I probably had an opportunity to build a foundation at the lower levels of rugby – which I would argue is by far the best way to develop as a coach. You have those experiences, you learn from them, and you get better and better from them.”
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned about how to be a successful coach?
“There’s probably a number of them along the way, but recently, in the last five or six years, what I’ve learned personally is I believe in a shared leadership model. As I’ve said in Scotland we’ve got some very experienced and well educated players. We as coaches don’t step on the field for the start of the game: we’re at the top of the stand and it’s done then. Therefore you really need leadership on the field.
“How do you get leadership on the field? You have to promote it within the week. You can’t lead the whole week as a coach, then get to kick-off and say ‘Right, over to you boys’ and step back when you haven’t given them an opportunity to lead.
“I learned this from when I was at the Scarlets, and Jonathan Davies, the Wales and Lions centre, was captain at the time. We as a coaching group – myself, Simon Easterby, Mark Jones – we were probably very coach-led. We led everything. Young coaches: those two just finishing playing, myself a young coach at the time.
“I was doing my masters in coaching science at the time, and one of my assignments was based around leadership. So I had to interview the senior Scarlets players for my degree, outside of my job, and Jonathan being the honest person that he is, said to me:
‘Do you know when the first chance I get to lead this group is during a match week? Just before the kick-off. Just before we leave the changing rooms. You guys run the week, which is fine, you run late in the week, you run the team run, then we get the warm-up and you’re running that, then you give us your last messages in the changing rooms and then you leave and hand over to me.’
“It slapped me in the face, to remind me we have to promote leadership by allowing players to lead. And that means they lead part of the week – not all of it, coaches have still got to make the final calls, but they’re involved in that to develop their leadership to be better on game day.
“At the Blues we had that, and come the end of the three-year period we had a very strong leadership group that co-led with the management and led to us winning some silverware. Even at Wales Under-20s we had that – not so much, because they were younger men.
“In Scotland we’ve got to promote leadership: tough men who will make decisions on the field. And we allow that to happen by developing through the week.”
That sounds very different to the picture painted by several former Glasgow players of the approach that was taken by Dave Rennie, in which he seemed to take charge of everything.
“I think you’d be surprised by Dave. Dave had a strong leadership group who were heavily involved in the decision-making there. I knew that from what I saw when I went in and watched.
“Not all coaches work like that, but Dave was one who did use a leadership group in a similar way that I would. I think he had Callum Gibbins as somebody who understood Dave inside out and was the link between the players and Dave.
“I’m a hands-on head coach: I’m on the field coaching and always have been. But I also sit with the player leadership group. Let’s take Fraser Brown. The amount of experience that man’s got, and his leadership credentials, are through the roof. If you shut him out and just tell him what to do all the time, you’re going to lose him anyway. You have to involve him in the process.
“Let’s take the captain’s run. It should be a captain’s run – if you’re on the field coaching, it’s too late by then. So we get to that point, stand back and say ‘Fraser, we’ve installed a game plan as a coaching group that you’ve agreed to and contributed to’.
“They’ve got to believe in that plan to carry it onto the field. However, there is flexibility within it: they’ve got to make decisions during the game; they’ve got to feel in control.
“And that’s how we get tough men as well. Alun Wyn Jones is an extremely tough leader: you’ve got to let him lead. You can’t say you want this leader and then shackle him and tell him he’s got to do what the coaches say all the time. Warren Gatland would 110 per cent use Alun Wyn’s leadership to better the team and the opportunity to win.
“It’s not the tail wagging the dog. Far from it. There has to still be non-negotiables: the calls that I have to make as head coach because it’s my head on the block. The negotiables are the areas that the players have a huge say in and can lead. That’s probably how you split the difference.”
When you moved from Scotland to Glasgow, did you feel there was unfinished business for you in international rugby?
“I certainly enjoyed the experience of international rugby: there’s nothing like game day in international rugby. But although I’m a forwards coach by trade, in recent years head coaching is an experience that I’ve enjoyed and gained a lot from. So I probably missed head coaching a little bit – I didn’t realise how much until I got into the job.
“So returning to international rugby one day – hundred per cent I would love to, ideally as a head coach. But for now, what I wanted to get back to was head coaching. I had the opportunity, it was too good an opportunity to turn down.
“It was the lure of going back to being a head coach at a club like Glasgow Warriors. It’s such a big club, and an exciting job, and it was too good to turn down.”
But would it be fair to say that in an ideal world Scotland would have done a lot better at the World Cup and you would still be part of Gregor’s coaching team?
“No. I don’t think it would have made any difference how Scotland did at the World Cup. I had an opportunity to take the job with Glasgow Warriors as a head coach and that was 100 per cent what I wanted to do.
“I made that decision myself. I had a further period on my contract with Scotland and would have stayed in that job …
“I enjoyed the job and I learned a lot from it, but I had an opportunity that I really wanted to take. I asked Gregor if he would allow me to take it. After several discussions, Gregor was excellent and said yes, if you really want to do it, go and do it. That’s how it ended up.”
There was a presumption in some quarters when you moved that there had been an ultimatum: there needed to be change at Scotland, and you were the person they were going to change. But you’re saying that’s not how it transpired at all.
“Not like that at all, no. It was my decision. An opportunity was presented to me to be considered along with other coaches, and I needed permission from Gregor to be able to do that, so I asked him for permission.
“We had the second-best lineout at the World Cup: that was an area I was responsible for. Our drive defence, statistically, was in a really good place at the World Cup. The scrum was up and down through my period. Those were the areas I was responsible for. Contact-area figures were decent enough. So they weren’t the alarming areas, I don’t think, where we were having to make massive changes.
“I was really disappointed in this Six Nations just gone with our line-out – it fell away dramatically for a number of different reasons. But up till then it was in a really good place.
“Granted, I was really disappointed like everybody that we didn’t get out of our group [at the World Cup]. We’ve all got that on our CVs and we’ve all got to wear that. But that wasn’t a reason for me leaving and I certainly wasn’t pushed out the door. It was more there was a head-coach opportunity.
“It’s a great opportunity for me. It’s a big job, therefore I was really keen to take it on. What other people want to assume is up to them.
“I don’t see it as a backwards step, going from a forwards coach with a national team to a head coach with a team like Glasgow Warriors. The head coach is a bigger job, there’s no doubt about that.
“So when the job came up and I was asked ‘Are you interested in it?’ Yes, 100 per cent I’m interested in it. There certainly wasn’t an ultimatum and I had a longer period of time on my contract that I could have fulfilled.”
What should we expect from your Glasgow side? Once it’s playing towards the top of its game, what will it look like?
“First of all, it will still maintain the identity of playing a fast, attacking style of rugby. That’s important. But there’s a balancing act that needs to be achieved: there are times when we have to be more pragmatic and manage games better.
“Glasgow can play some outstanding attacking rugby and score five tries, but sometimes that high risk can also lead to conceding four tries, and in the bigger games it’s about trying to get a better understanding of staying in the arm wrestle. Yes, they’re exciting games and yes, we want to play rugby, but we don’t have to play all the rugby. We need to be defensively a lot more solid.
“So that’s what Glasgow will look like, and at the same time over the next couple of years it’s my responsibility to develop some younger players and bring them through – we need to do that while dealing with the difficulties that Covid has left, including the financial restraints. So we will have restrictions in the future, but it is great to have continued support from our sponsors – the likes of SP Energy Networks.”
What will constitute success for you in this coming season? You’re going to be without your internationals during the Nations Cup and then the Six Nations …
“When I took the job, I saw a two-, three-year project of challenging for trophies, and that’s still our aim. There’s no doubt about that.
“This year is quite a broken year, almost between two squads. We’re probably down on depth a little bit, so we’ve got to find ways of growing that from within.
“I don’t think we’ll put any goals in terms of winning the league. We’ve got to look at ensuring that when our internationals are away, the best teams we can put out will still win games.
“We’ve got to improve our league position. Play-offs have to be the aim. That won’t change.”