1872 Cup: Jonny Bell aims to keep Glasgow attack flourishing

Former Ireland international believes his background as defence coach is an advantage in his new role with Warriors

Jonny Bell
Jonny Bell was Gloucester's defence coach before moving to Glasgow as attack coach. Image: Fotosport/Andrew Cowie.

BUY while stocks are low, they say in financial circles. There’s a sporting equivalent too: take up a coaching post when a club’s fortunes are flagging, not when all is well.

In that respect, both Danny Wilson and Jonny Bell have gone against received wisdom by becoming head coach and attack coach at Glasgow Warriors, with Bell in particular having a hard act to follow.

As Glasgow reached the PRO14 final last season and are almost certainly not going to emulate that achievement, there is evident scope for Wilson to achieve more in his first season than Dave Rennie did in his last. But Bell has a tougher brief. If the Warriors are known for one thing, it is their attacking prowess: can he really improve on that aspect of the team’s play, especially given Wilson’s emphasis so far on the need to tighten up in defence?

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Having coached with Ulster before spending the last five years as Gloucester’s defence coach, the former Ireland international is well aware of Glasgow’s reputation for invention and dynamism in attack. But he does not believe that quality need be compromised by the head coach’s demand for greater solidity and structure at the back, believing instead that an improvement in one aspect of play can be part of a better all-round performance.

“That’s always the challenge – it’s trying to get that balance in any team,” Bell said last week in his first media conference since taking up the post. “It’s about having the ability to maintain that attacking threat when the opportunities are there to attack, whilst having that ability to release pressure and make sure that we have that mindset of being very aggressive defensively. We’re already a very good defensive side. 

“All coaches have a mindset about what they favour, and I think Dave and Jason O’Halloran, the former attack coach] had a very attacking mindset. Danny’s not going to alter that attacking belief, because it is and always has been part of what Glasgow is. 

“So it’s about just altering that mindset slightly to give the players that little bit of toughness with regards to defence. We’re not just happy to score tries, we’re desperate not to concede tries. I think that’s just going to be a little bit of a tweak in our mindset.”

And Bell is confident that the “little bit of a tweak” in question will still leave ample room for the likes of Niko Matawalu to play off the cuff at times. “You’ve got to understand what you have, and there’s no point trying to put a round peg into a square hole,” he continued. “We’ve got guys who in broken play are very dangerous, so through our structures we want to create opportunities for them to thrive. 

“We don’t want to be running incessantly for the sake of running when we can instead put pressure on the opposition to give ourselves the best opportunity to release these talented players. Defences are strong now, so we’ve got to be smart in how we play. 

“Everyone knows that Glasgow are an attacking threat so they’ll be on red alert. But the beauty of it is that Niko, George [Horne], Ali [Price], all these guys, they are instinctive and that’s sometimes what you can’t coach into the guys. You don’t want to take that away, because that’s what makes them great. There will be times when you get frustrated because they try to pull a rabbit out of a hat, but it’s about getting a balance to that. 

“You don’t want to take away their ambition and excitement, and that’s the way Glasgow have always come across to me as someone coming from the outside – as a team that are well-coached but very dangerous. If you give them a sniff of an opportunity they are pretty clinical.”

With his considerable experience of coaching defence, Bell has a crucial role to play in finding then maintaining that balance between the two sides of the game. He does not see himself as a novice in his new role, and believes that understanding other specialities is a critical element of being a successful coach.

“The attacking and defensive games complement each other. Because there’s going to be times when we want to turn teams and get a lot of pressure on them and force them to either kick loosely to us or give us attacking opportunities from an unstructured scenario. And then you’re getting the likes of Tommy Seymour, young Rufus McLean – you’ve got lots of talented young players in broken-field scenarios who can cause lots of problems. 

“Having worked on the other side of the ball, I’ve probably watched more attack than most attack coaches have watched, so it gives me an appreciation that it has to be a joined-up approach. At the end of the day we’re out to try and make this team better, and attack and defence don’t work in isolation. And I’ve never coached in isolation. Yes, you lead in certain things, but we don’t put ourselves in silos and say ‘This is what I do, I don’t want to think about the other side of the game’.

“I’m not saying this across the board as a sweeping statement, but I think we can get very stuck in our ways in some things. Certainly just from my own personality and character, I like to see the game as a whole. 

“I’ve watched a lot of attack and obviously I have experience of playing the game, so it’s not just that I’ve come through in a defensive role and looked at the game purely from a defensive mindset. It’s something that I believe freshens coaching groups up and can sometimes freshen the player group up. 

“Instead of having a wholesale change in coaching across the board you can just swap roles at times. Obviously you have to have the ability to do that, and the right people, but yeah, I actually think it’s a great thing.”

The new coaching team might have hoped for an easier start to their tenure than a double-header at BT Murrayfield against Edinburgh, first on Saturday and then the following Friday. The 1872 Cup games are demanding physical encounters at the best of times, but these two PRO14 fixtures could be particularly difficult for the Glasgow players to prepare for, given they are all but out of the play-offs while their rivals are not only almost sure of a last-four place but going for a home semi-final. Unsurprisingly, though, Bell has a different take on the game, and does not think his players will need any extra motivation when they take to the field for the first time since mid-March. 

“I think the fact that Edinburgh are going for that semi is in many respects irrelevant to us. They’re a good side and we know we’ve got a big job, but we’re putting Glasgow shirts on and we’re going out against a derby team and for the first time in a long time we’re getting back in as a group. So we’re desperate to just go out and make sure we perform.

“We want to play the game at pace, but we have to have that ability to mix it up in the tight quarters. When you play Edinburgh, your set-piece has got to be strong and you’ve got to be able to be physical.

“We’ve got to balance that speed and ambition with a real hard edge. It’s a pretty short turnaround to these Edinburgh games so I haven’t been about revolution and changing things. I’ll tweak things and do things that I want to change as time goes by, but with this short turnaround to these early games I’m not trying to change too much. It’s about getting the best out of these players: getting them in a place where they’re comfortable and happy with what they’re doing.”

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About Stuart Bathgate 1394 Articles
Stuart has been the rugby correspondent for both The Scotsman and The Herald, and was also The Scotsman’s chief sports writer for 14 years from 2000.