Team-first attitude has squad ranked in CIS Top 10
By Neale McDevitt
For the uninitiated, rugby doesn’t seem like a warm and fuzzy sport. Daily highlights from the World Cup currently being waged in New Zealand are rife with bone-jarring collisions between bloodied colossi. Last player standing wins.
But what most casual observers don’t understand is that for all its seeming mayhem, rugby is extremely technical and requires as much teamwork – or more – than most other sports. Just ask the McGill Martlets rugby team.
“The kind of rugby we are trying to play requires confidence and real cooperation between players,” said John Lavery, a Martlet coach. “Our game isn’t really built around stars, it is built more upon teamwork.”
Five years ago, the Martlets had a different game plan, with more star power than the red carpet on Oscar night. The class of the Ontario University Athletics, the team was riding an incredible nine-year undefeated streak in which it had gone 57 consecutive games without a loss.
But a 7-3 loss to Laval in 2006 marked the end of the streak and a change of rugby fortunes for the Martlets. In recent years the team hasn’t really challenged for the league title, falling behind both Laval and Concordia in the pursuit of an elusive berth to the national championships.
End of an era
More pointedly, the program itself seemed to falter. In Lavery’s first year with the team only seven veterans returned from the previous year’s roster of 35 varsity players. While some were lost due to graduation, some 15 players just decided not to play.
“We needed a culture change,” said Lavery. “For the last few years we’ve been working to create a positive, inclusive environment where people feel genuinely welcome.”
With the relatively short season and upwards of 50 athletes in the program, it is difficult for the coaching staff to, in Lavery’s words, “hold everyone’s hand.” The onus falls upon the players to help welcome new teammates into their midst and to create that elusive quality called team spirit.
“It really is a welcoming environment,” said Chloe Duncan, a nursing undergrad in her third season with the team. “I’ve talked to other teammates who’ve come from other sports and they say that this team is like no other. It doesn’t matter if you’re in your first year or your fourth year you’re as much a part of the team as anyone else.
“It’s like a big family. We pick each other up when we make mistakes and we don’t turn on each other. The support you feel on this team is really incredible.”
And the approach seems to be working as, for the first time in four years, the Martlets are ranked in the CIS Top 10 at No.9, with a 3-2 record heading into their Oct. 15 match against Bishop’s at McEwen Field.
More freedom, more responsibility
Lavery admits that much of the culture change had to begin with himself as coach. “I think I watched too many army movies,” he said. “Whatever I did, I had to be yelling – because that’s the way I was coached for many years. As a young player I remember almost quitting all the time because I was getting brow beaten for every mistake I made and never actually being told how to do it right.”
His experience working with other coaches on various provincial representative teams opened his eyes to a kinder, gentler approach to coaching that actually challenges the players to take full ownership of their game and their team.
Now “we run a much more casual program,” said Lavery. “Because the fire has to come from within them. The coach should never be the most pumped person on the field.”
While there are clearly defined patterns of play for the team, the coaches don’t spoon-feed players right or wrong answers to specific situations in practice, giving them the opportunity to better understand what works and what doesn’t.
“If it is too coach-centred then they do what I tell them to do but they don’t understand why I have them doing it,” said Lavery. “But if you keep throwing it back on them to fix it, they’ll get better every time they mess up. They own that. These are McGill students, so they’re smart and they will challenge naturally. They want to know why and to have a good reason for everything. I tell them, ‘please, question me. We can talk about this all day if you want.’”