Guy Noves spent 13 seasons with Toulouse as a player and then coached in the Pink City for 22 seasons, finishing up with four Heineken Cup titles and nine French championships.
It looked like Noves was living the dream when he was appointed the head coach of France after the 2015 Rugby World Cup, but he’s just been awarded €1m (R16m) in damages for unfair dismissal after a long legal battle against the French Rugby Federation. He fought to clear his name after becoming the first head coach of France to be sacked before the end of his contract.
The face of Toulouse for decades, Noves claims that he has struggling personally as a result of his ordeal with the FFR. Most people will say, “struggling personally? You must be joking?” but his situation is a very real downfall of life as a professional coach.
It got me thinking about whether rugby supporters are aware that the job is a lot tougher than just running field sessions and drinking champagne out of a big cup.
As a professional coach, you’ve got to manage a staff that you often haven’t picked yourself, and sometimes that staff doesn’t think the same as you. In sport you need the people involved to have a bit of an ego, to rate themselves, to walk the line between confidence and arrogance, and that can create conflict when you’re not aligned.
You may have a staff member on a long-term contract who is actually upset that he wasn’t given the head coaching role. So you’ve got to manage that guy because he’s not in a positive frame of mind and may not always be trying to help you win.
Then you‘ve got another guy who doesn’t really believe in what you’re trying to do, but you can’t get rid of him because the team can’t afford to pay him out. That’s why coaches fight so hard to have their own staff around.
A coach also usually inherits a squad, with some guys that he might not have recruited. Sometimes the board hires a coach to come in and light a fire under players who are relaxing in a comfort zone. And with that, some players will fight you, and then you’ve got to get rid of them. That is never easy and it seldom ends with a smile and a handshake.
Ask any experienced professional player or coach and they will tell you about the empty clichés some players will say in the media. They’ll be quoted saying, “it’s fantastic to play with these legends,” but what supporters don’t know is that, behind the scenes and in the team room, that guy is a prick. What he says and does are two different things and as a coach you’ve got to manage him. Not all of those are success stories and not all of them end well.
And then, depending on what country or club you’re with, you have to report to board members, committees or owners that have their own view of what should or shouldn’t happen on the field. And sometimes, what they sell you about the job is not what you get. Maybe the CEO told you that you’ll have free rein to run the show, but once you’re in the job those promises don’t materialise.
Michael Cheika was allowed to get rid of Wallabies assistant coach Stephen Larkham, but now his bosses have appointed Scott Johnson as the director of rugby. It just shows how many moving pieces there are behind the scenes.
And while players have license to live in their emotions, the coach has always got to be the rock that keeps the team positive and on track.
Before he won the 2003 Rugby World Cup, Clive Woodward told me that you can’t win and be popular because you have to be forceful about getting what you need to win. If you’re not, you’ll get fired because of bad results, and if you are forceful, you upset people along the way.
At the end of the day, the coach carries the can and, no matter what sport you’re in, your currency as a coach is results. It doesn’t matter if you’re a nice guy and “good with players” if you don’t win. To win you sometimes have to make unpopular decisions, and that’s why experience is vital, because if you’ve been there and done it you learn what is non-negotiable.
While many of these things happen in everyday jobs too, you’re not trialled by the media and your job is not reviewed by your bosses every seven days.
But that’s part of the reason pro coaches take the job – that’s part of the adrenaline we enjoy. Coaches want to be on the cutting edge where wins and losses mean the most and that comes with real pressure. For us, that’s what we mean when we talk about “living the dream”.
People think I’ve got a great job, and I do. I wear a tracksuit to work, and get to interact with all sorts of people from all over the world. I spend a lot of time living in a hotel where your meals are cooked for you and your washing is done for you. It’s fantastic.
But there are also real negatives. On Friday night, there were people filtering out of Ellis Park before the final whistle because the Lions were losing, and that’s a team that’s been the top franchise in SA for the past couple of years and has played in three successive Super finals. That’s how quickly it can change for a pro coach.
The politics of the job can sometimes keep you up all night. Moving goalposts have a domino effect on staff and players, and there’s the loneliness when you lose and the media is having a go at you.
When I was Bok coach, I remember reading billboards that said “Jake to be fired!”, and my sons asking me whether that was true. There’s no manual to prepare a coach for that, you have to learn the hard way. And during all of those lessons you’ve got stay optimistic for the team.
Because my coaching journey has taken me to Japan, I don’t see my boys. One is in the USA and the other is in South Africa. And even if we were living together, pro coaching is one of those jobs where you don’t get to come home at dinner time. You’re away from your family and you’re under the spotlight.
I really want to emphasise, we don’t’ want anyone to feel sorry for us; coaches aren’t looking for sympathy. We are living the dream and I’m appreciative of having this unique position in life. For a boy who grew up in a relatively modest home, I’ve seen countries and places I never thought I’d come close to.
There are 7.5 billion people on the planet and I’ve got one of 1000 opportunities to coach rugby professionally.
It is a dream to have done something that is recognised and appreciated, but it does come at great cost, and people don’t see how lonely coaching can be.