MAY 29th, 2008. Defeat away to Waterpark confirmed City of Derry’s relegation to junior rugby for the first time in its history. The club is at a crossroads.
One road leads along a well trodden route and promised little change but the possibility of an occasional return to AIL rugby where survival would be the limit of ambition. The second - a much riskier path - was less clear. Radical change, beginning with the appointment of an overseas coach. The not-so-faceless men of Judges Road - namely Alan McClure, Moss Dineen and Stan Huey - didn’t need long to decide and New Zealander Bevan Lynch was installed. This week Derry’s Kiwi Head Coach talked to MICHAEL WILSON about his own playing career, coaching future All Black superstars, the journey that brought him to Derry and the three memorable seasons since. Success on the rugby field is not a wishful hope for New Zealanders, it is an expectation. The sport is ingrained in their culture, just like winning. However, even the most optimistic City of Derry supporter would have been pressed to predict the transformation this club was about to undergo when Bevan Lynch was appointed in June 2008.
Lynch was not a stranger to Judges Road. It was one of the first places he sought out when he initially arrived in Derry in 2001 to teach at Foyle & Londonderry College as part of his three year ‘OE’ or Overseas Experience, something as ingrained in the Kiwi culture as the All Blacks themselves. Not that Lynch expected to be back in the North-West after that brief sojourn which had, unbeknown to him, already brought him into contact with many of the players whose careers he would help shape the club’s rise to All-Ireland League Division 2A.
It was not a straight-forward journey for a man who holds the highest rugby coaching qualification possible in New Zealand and who oversaw the early careers of present All-Black superstars, Alby Mathewson and Hikawera Elliott, both of whom appeared against Ireland in Lansdowne Road last Autumn.
So how, with the offer of the Head Coach’s role at top provincial side, Bay of Plenty on the table and the possibility to move up into coaching a Super 14 side at a later date, did Lynch land back at a Derry team languishing in junior rugby? As is usually the case, it began with a woman!
“It’s funny how it works out because I hadn’t thought of Ireland until good mate of mine was playing for Skerries and Clontarf and eventually married an Irish girl,” explained Bevan.
“He returned to New Zealand and said he had come into contact with a rugby agent named Duncan Dysart who was looking for players. At that stage I had sort of semi-retired and got into coaching, but I thought I was still young enough to play. I got fit again and started playing senior rugby once more and then floated the CV out. Then Duncan got hold of me he told me about Derry and the job at Foyle College.
“I was running the rugby programme at Foyle and the next step for me was to find the local club which meant calling out to Judges Road. I ended up playing for the firsts a bit under Terry McMaster. He was keen to get me to sign on but the club already had its full quota of overseas players. It meant I would play some of the league games but none of the AIL games. Instead I helped Terry coach because at that stage he was a one-man band, so it was almost by default that I got involved with the club.
“It was perfect for me though because I’d just come out of my Practicum at home, which is the highest rugby qualification you can get in New Zealand, and I was at a stage where I was coaching guys like Piri Weepu and had two or three All-Blacks in the Provincial Junior squad I was working with. I really enjoyed getting into the senior level over there because I hadn’t quite made that step as a player. Apart from captaining a premier team and being a semi-player coach, I hadn’t coached a senior squad before.”
Hailing from the Hawke’s Bay region on the East Coast of the North Island, Bevan’s own quest for international honours were dashed after the infamous attempted merger of two of the country’s most prestigious rugby provinces.
“I had a few limiting factors as a player, namely my speed and my vision! I was lucky enough in that I gained exposure from John Philips and Wayne Smith, who was our backs coach at Hawke’s Bay. We had three All-Blacks in our Provincial squad and as it was on the cusp of going professional, that was when I found out I didn’t have what it took to make that next level up to get international honours.
“What happened was our two very proud provinces, Hawke’s Bay and Manawatu, attempted a merger. Wayne Smith was CEO of Hawke’s Bay rugby at that stage and took the bold step of combining the two unions to form a team called the Vikings. Wayne was quite innovative, but it was a thwarted effort because these were two very proud provincial unions and there was a lot of resistance. There was just too much history.
“When that happened I was going in and out of the playing XV but suddenly guys like All-Blacks Mark Ranby and Christian Cullen and others of that calibre were suddenly thrown into the mix, so competition went up and I made the decision to move more into fitness training and coaching.”
That was when my thoughts turned to travel.
“After I dropped out of rugby I actually became a fitness trainer for the Vikings and came into contact with a lot of good coaches like Graham Taylor, who is the Hurricances backs coach. I also trained a professional cricket team, so I had a good rounded experience in fitness coaching. It was an area I was really interested in but the yearning to travel was always there.”
The cultural and sporting differences were immediately obvious to Lynch but he revealed that, contrary to perception, rugby is battling on as many fronts in New Zealand as it does in Ireland.
“Obviously the first thing I noticed was the size of players. The big thing with New Zealand is it’s an island with a big Maori tradition and they are very big, physical players. The kids here, they play football and it’s freezing, so most of the time they have their hands in the pockets and are kicking balls about the ground. In New Zealand the kids live with a basketball or rugby ball in their hands so the natural ball handling skills are significantly higher.
“Obviously you get a lot of prestige in New Zealand if you’re a good rugby player but the fact is football is now the main sport in terms of participation. Probably what has accelerated that is that the island and Maori boys are so dominant in rugby.
“We have weight grades in New Zealand rather than age grades because you can get a Maori or island boy that’s not got a pick of fat on him, is 13-years old, weighs 100 kgs and runs 100m in 13 seconds. That’s pretty scary and a lot of families from different backgrounds are not too keen to let their children play with these kids.
“For example our front row at Hastings Boys’ School, where I taught, was heavier than the All Blacks front row at that stage so you are talking big, big characters. Despite these new challenges though, if you’re a good sportsman, rugby and cricket are the sports you aspire to represent your country in.”
His first experience of Derry and Judges Road had left a lasting impression on Lynch but upon his return to New Zealand he received an offer which could have significantly altered his future plans and those of City of Derry.
“There are windows in life. When I returned home I had the opportunity to replace Joe Smith at Bay of Plenty. Joe and I are great mates and played together for Manawatu. He coached my old school, Napier Boys against Hastings and we had many battles down the years. Joe recommended me and I met up with the CEO of Bay of Plenty Rugby, a guy called Chris Crinter, who is famed with pulling Jonah Lomu out of Auckland.
“Joe was moving to the Auckland Blues Super 14 job and they were looking for a replacement. That was my window to jump into professional coaching, which was flattering, but I’d been over in Ireland and away from my family and friends for a while and there is only one certainty as a coach - you’re probably going to get sacked at some stage.
“I look back now and wonder whether I should have taken it, but I don’t regret it. I got a job in senior management in teaching and that was what I was passionate about. I set up a sports academy in the school I was in, it was more settled. I looked at my wife and kids and thought about what would be best for our whole family. If you’re a coach, you’re always on the move. Joe’s lived in, I think, five different places in the past few years.
“I made the decision but, ironically, when I went back to Hastings things had moved on and it was not quite what I envisaged it to be. After three years I was looking at changing my career and getting out of teaching but the economic downturn arrived. Out of the blue the offer came from Derry, so I thought I would take the opportunity to come over here and I’m very glad I did.”
One of the main attractions for Bevan was seeing how some of the young players with potential he had first noticed at Foyle had developed. He wasn’t disappointed.
“A lot of the good work was done before I arrived. That was the recruiting and obviously Terry McMaster played a big part with Moss Dineen and Alan McClure, among others. Those are all significant names that had the courage to say, either we are going to be a junior club and not harness the talent in the province or we do something drastic. To put a contract on the table and bring a Kiwi coach over was a bold step but the thing that attracted me was the vast majority of the team I knew from when I played here or helped coach. The others I knew from teaching. Simon Logue is the last student I had taught myself. They were good footballers and I was interested to see how far they had come and maybe take a bit more of a journey with them.
“We’re lucky to have a good bunch who get on with each and support each other. We are luckier than most clubs to have someone like Mark Nicholl, who is a great guy and brings the best of the players. He hasn’t got the mention he deserves. He is one of these silent achievers. I like the sound of my own voice but he is a man of few words, though the words he says are very pertinent. When I finally do sign off, the club has got a good talisman to keep it going in the right direction.”
Two promotions in two years and a first AIL title in the process tells its own story but what can we expect at Judges Road next season?
“You have to shoot for the stars. There is no top four, it is top two and I think that pressure will be good for us.
“The players have amazing belief and if we put the effort in, we will get what we deserve. They work hard for each other and know each other well which makes a huge difference when you are lining up alongside a real friend. It is a special group and, hopefully, we can keep them together for a long time because I think they can go to the top.
“Our boys need challenges if we are going to keep this squad together. I’m just delighted everything is in place to continue the journey with the club.”