When we talk again, it’s the night before the first test (pre-dawn for me) and Denis is relaxed but primed. It’s been the final training session and Captains’ Run at the ground.
The focus is there but the humour remains as you can see:
I ask Denis how the group is able to maintain the fine balance between being at ease but ready to erupt into action. He has no hesitation in giving the nod to the Head Coach,
“Wayne has been at his best in the last couple of days. We had a great team meeting focusing on being on task. There’s a lot of leaders in this group so it’s about allocating responsibility. As a coach, to see how Wayne holds the room is impressive. He has presence. He knows when to take the lead and when to back off and the lads respond accordingly”.
“I guess he’s been doing it for years. As a younger coach do you find you’re learning from him?”
“Without a doubt”. Denis pauses and reverses slightly, “Not because he’s saying things that are revolutionary, it’s how he holds himself. He’s definitely a maverick. He has an incredible strength of personality. For me it’s about adapting my own coaching. Sometimes it re-enforces what I do. Other times he says and does a thing I’ll grab hold of. I’m always refining my approach to coaching”.
“What does he do exactly?”
Wayne knows how to lead men. He’s not a shouter and baller. He breaks the mould. I’ve been playing and coaching a long time and he still held me.
“You need to be there really. Wayne knows how to lead men. He’s not a shouter and baller. He breaks the mould. I’ve been playing and coaching a long time and he still held me. Imagine being a player”.
“You’ve got a role in making an impact to?”
“Yeah, of course. It’s about attitude. Enjoying the people, getting to know them. Never getting bored of the little elements, checking how they are. You need to be the virus you want infect people with”.
“Sounds a bit like parenting”.
“It’s more about what you say, than what you do. You’ve got to be prepared to bounce into a room, however you’re feeling yourself. It’s not about you, it’s about the players and it’s critical you behave in a way that enables relationships to develop so you can understand each other. Besides, you need to know why I pick a player. There’s no point picking a ‘y,z’ if he’s actually an ‘a,b’ ”.
“And how is the group responding to selection?”
“Good, because everyone gets it. That’s the environment we’ve built. It means the boys not selected need to keep on it a little to more and do that bit extra – they hit the exercise bikes whilst the team went on the Captain’s run”.
We next speak only a couple of hours from kick off. Denis had to delay the call as it seems he needed an extra-long shower to get beautiful for the cameras. When he’s finished with his ablutions he’s pragmatic about the game, whilst talking through gulped mouthfuls of food,
“It’s not the be all and end all but we want to win and prove we’re worthy. It means beating Australia twice on the bounce in competition and that’s been gone in around 50 years”.
“What about today. It’s a long wait for a night-time game”.
“Long and dull. We’ve had a team walk but all the work has been done. It’s a case of getting to end of day fed watered and prepared to play. I had a meeting with all the staff, pre-game routine and then did our staff pump up”.
“It’s where we all go to the gym and get stuck into each other, have a bit of banter and then lunch. Basically it’s one of those days of your life that you’ll never get back. For the players you don’t want them getting too bored”.
I can hear an unmistakable and regular ‘clack’ sound in the background, “is someone playing pool?”
Denis laughs, “You can hear that? Yes – and we’ve got an Xbox and table football. They help”.
“I love table football. We’ve had some good games of that in the past”.
“I think it’s a bit too retro for this group, it’s not been used much”.
“You’re joking. You should set up a competition”.
“I think I will”. Denis pauses between mouthfuls and I can feel his mood shift, “We need to start”.
“Too much waiting?”
“And not just today. It’s been a long time coming. We’re dragging up old games to review. After tonight we can start watching the other games and really get into the tournament. I can’t wait.”
“Not long now mate”.
“Not long now”.
I’m returning with the team after an impromptu Friday lunchtime visit to the pub. We’re all exhausted from watching the Australia v England game. I’m telling Mark that I’m not sure how my nerves will hold up over the next six weeks when my phone rings. To my surprise it’s Denis. I have nothing to offer other than, “Bloody Hell pal…”
That familiar rumble, part way between a chuckle and a sigh, ” I’ve not seen a Test Match like that for a long time. It was brutal: bang and go from start to finish”.
“Everyone here is shredded but optimistic”.
“It’s cliche land but it’s a journey not a destination. It’s heartening whilst being disheartening. We stuck at the task. Everyone worked for each other. We showed belief. Four years ago we capitulated. Tonight our mentality was completely different, we were tough and strong. Yes we were a bit soft on field positions a couple of of times and made some uncharacteristic mistakes but we showed great mental toughness. We got into rhythm and showed strong in the second half. Wayne was pleased. And we’re going to get better over the next few weeks”.
“So you’re ok?”
“Yeah but emotionally exhausted. You know what’s it’s like as you’re emotionally invested in it too because you know me. The players are physically tired but watching there’s no emotional outlet so your mind gets shot to bits. Are they cold?”
The last comment throws me, “Sorry?”
Denis chuckles, “Paul’s got me a beer. Everyone else has gone downstairs for some food and to meet up with their families. I was just checking it was cold”.
I take that as my cue to say goodbye, “Warm food, cold beer. I think you’ve deserved it. Enjoy”.
Coach Down Under
This article is part of the Coach Down Under Series.