MICHAEL Todd has come a long way in a short time. That is literally the case – at 33 the Edinburgh defence coach has lived on three continents and sailed the world as a deckhand. And it applies metaphorically too: at an age when most of his peers are still playing rugby, the Zimbabwean has already accumulated more than a decade of coaching experience.
Like so many young coaches, Todd owes that early start to an injury which ended his playing days. After emigrating to Australia with his family as a teenager, he was playing club rugby in Brisbane when he sustained serious knee damage in a pre-season match.
He takes up the story: “I wanted to stay involved with the team, so I learned a bit more about analysis software. Then I reached out to the [Queensland] Reds guy and asked if I could volunteer my time. I was at university on the Sunshine Coast, the Reds are in Brisbane, so as a student I would drive down, do my thing, then go back to uni. After a time I just ended up getting a job.
“I’d been in analysis for a while and was coaching club rugby – I did defence for one season. Then Covid hit – and then Brad Thorn [then the Reds’ head coach] asked me to do the defence and I said OK.”
In between his first couple of seasons with the Reds and his joining the coaching team there in 2020, Todd spent the 2014-15 season as an analyst with Munster and then took some time out from rugby to work on a yacht. “I ended up doing that for six to eight months, sailing round the world, then I ended up back in Queensland.
“You get to see some amazing places, but it’s pretty hard work. You’re working for some very wealthy people, so the expectations are high. It’s enjoyable, but I couldn’t see myself doing it any longer.
“I was a deckhand – scrubbing, cleaning, getting the boats out, jet skis, diving equipment. And then because of the clientele we were working for, you would be setting up picnics in the middle of mountains, flying up then kayaking down – which is an incredible experience.”
After those seasons back in Super Rugby with the Reds, Todd felt the urge to travel again, but this time decided to do so within the sport. When Calum MacRae decided to leave Edinburgh for Benetton in the summer of 2022, a vacancy arose for a defence coach, and within a couple of weeks Todd had signed a two-year contract: “I was just looking for opportunities overseas to learn a bit more, and I ended up getting in contact with Mike Blair.”
That move came at the end of Blair’s highly successful debut season as the team’s head coach, and it looked like Todd was entering a stable environment. But performances slumped badly in the middle of the 2022-23 campaign, culminating in Blair’s announcement that he would step down as head coach at the end of the season. The highly experienced Steve Diamond came in to steady the ship for a few months as ‘lead rugby consultant’, and has since handed the baton over to ‘senior coach’ Sean Everitt.
Inevitably, there has been a sense of impermanence and uncertainty around Edinburgh since the start of this year, and when he arrived Todd can hardly have expected to have three different bosses to answer to in the space of 14 months. But he is a resilient individual, and is confident that despite the things that went wrong last season, the foundations of a good, competitive squad are still there at the club.
“Absolutely. I just think we need to put a bit more time into a couple of areas and tidy up a few things. Ultimately we want to play, we want to have a good crack, but we’ve just got to be smarter at times. That’s what we’re working on at the moment.
“We have a really good squad, it’s getting deeper, and I think we’ll have a really good team. We’re going to go out there and give 150 per cent.”
When it comes to working with that squad, Todd believes that honesty and mutual respect are the key qualities. “They’re humans, not robots. You don’t just do X and Y – it’s all about the personal relationships. In defence you’ve got to ask them to do uncomfortable things, so it’s do they trust you? You’ve got to earn their trust – it’s not just rolling out a strategy and expecting people to do it.
“It’s like in a business. If your CEO doesn’t earn your respect, you’re probably not going to go to war for them, do that extra time for them. So for me the coaching side is all about personal relationships, and sometimes that has been overlooked.
“We’ve got some very experienced players here, and you’ve got to listen to them. They know better than you do. You can suggest things and do analysis. You’ve got to show you’ve done the work and they can make a decision – ‘Yeah, we can do this, it sounds good’.
“It’s more of a democracy. You’re all in it together. It’s everyone’s job that is on the line.”
So what are the most important qualities that Todd looks for in a player, and who in the present game best epitomises those qualities? “Hard-working and tough, that’s what I would say. Pieter-Steph du Toit: athletic, works hard off the ball, and is not afraid to put his body in front of big men running the other way.”
Todd may not have the Springboks’ former world player of the year to work with this coming season, but, as he said, the squad at his disposal is getting deeper, and in South African Everitt he has a head coach from a similar background to his own. His initial contract may only have a year to run, but he is happily settled here and hopes he can remain part of the coaching team for some time beyond that.
“We can relate to a lot of things, having lived in Africa,” he says of Everitt. “I used to go to Durban [where Everitt’s former team, the Sharks, are based] for a lot of holidays when I was younger, so a lot of the places are pretty similar. Yeah, we see similar things and it’s been good to start working with him.
“This is a great place, lovely city – one of the best cities in the world that I’ve been to – and great people. I’m very happy where I am and hopefully I can stay on a little bit longer.”
Michael Todd was interviewed as Edinburgh Rugby launched a new partnership with Hive, who have become the naming partner of Hive Stadium ahead of the 2023/24 season. Tickets for the club’s first home BKT United Rugby Championship match of the season against Emirates Lions (Saturday 28 October, kick-off 5pm) are now on public sale from edinburghrugby.org .