The Coaches
Michael Foley: the Force is with him
Brett McKay
May 14, 2014
The Force celebrated their "best" win of the season against the Chiefs © Getty Images

We don't always get to hear much about our top-level coaches these days, certainly not much beyond the usual 'this bloke is rubbish'/'this bloke's a genius' debate, but often there's stories and insight to be provided that goes well beyond the standard cliches.

Western Force boss Michael Foley watches on, Western Force v Sharks, Super Rugby, nib Stadium, Perth, Australia, May 17, 2013
Michael Foley says Western Force are reaping the rewards of previous years' work © Getty Images

In the second of our new series profiling the best clipboard-holders in the game, ESPNscrum speaks to Western Force head coach Michael Foley.

ESPNscrum: What's the starting point for a major culture overhaul such as that you and Matt Hodgson are leading at Western Force?

Michael Foley: I think coming in new to the job, I was in a good position not to carry any baggage of the past, and I've said a number of times since I've been here that I have great respect for a number of the people that have been at the club since the beginning. For them, this is their ninth year and I haven't even done two years yet.

So I was pretty enthusiastic and very excited about what the possibilities were, and the whole change in approach to things started with a conversation I had with "Hodgo" when I started. He and I just sat in a room and we talked about a lot of things for a couple of hours; about rugby, and probably more importantly about what we wanted to stand for, and it was great because I hadn't spoken to Matt at any great length before. But he and I agreed that one of the really important things in an elite sporting competition that was team-based was that we were a respected team.

And so we talked a lot about how important it was to earn respect, and that was first and foremost amongst each other, and that we had to have certain standards within the team and to earn respect within the team, those standards had to be attained. But then what we also did was include our people; the staff in the building, our families, and our supporters, and then thirdly to our opposition.

So that conversation was probably the starting point, and from there Matt gathered a group of guys who were mandated with growing standards within the team; guys like Sam Wykes, Pek Cowan, Ben McCalman, Alby Mathewson, Kyle Godwin, and Patty Dellit.

Those guys aren't a senior playing group, they're not a leadership group, they're just a standards group, and it really started there with us learning to crawl, and then walking, and now jogging a bit, which is nice.

A lot of people are talking about what they see as a turnaround in the team this year, but an enormous amount of work went into it from those guys last year, and, like any new learning, it take a bit of time for it to become habitual. There was certainly an adjustment in behaviours from day one, but it's like any skill; you don't master it immediately and we're not professing to have done that now, but we got a lot better over the course of the 18 months, and now you're seeing a team that really does a lot of the right things for the right reasons.

And we can all sit there and say, "this is what we think it should look like", and we can take an autocratic approach and say, "this is the way it is, or else" or you can over time help people shape new meaning and understand that there's a right reason for doing things. So our players do the things that they do for each other, because that matters, and not because of consequences if they don't.

ESPNscrum: Hearing you say that, and without wanting to dwell on your time at the Waratahs too much, would it be fair to say you didn't have the same level of buy-in in Sydney as you obviously do have in Perth?

Michael Foley: Brett, look, for what it's worth, I don't really want to talk about that because if I was to talk about that I don't think I would be able to do it justice in making a simplistic comment ... it's something that I've avoided talking about up until now, and I don't really want to talk about it now, either.

Michael Foley's door is open to James O'Connor if the player wants to re-open discussions © Getty Images

ESPNscrum: You made some fairly pointed comments recently about recruitment, and particularly around James O'Connor, and that a conversation you'd want to have with him would be about what he would bring to the Force, as opposed to what the Force could do for him. I want to flip that question around and go a bit hypothetical. What do you think you and the Force could do for James O'Connor?

Michael Foley: (Laughs) Well, that is a bit hypothetical, yeah. But we spent a lot of time with James talking about it, and the potential of him joining us this season, and he elected to go overseas, which for him was the right decision.

I think there's two sides to that with any player, and James O'Connor is like any player, and it comes down to looking at how we play and how he would be part of that, and the second thing is who we are. You've touched on it and we've talked about culture, but what the expectations are to be a good team man; what it is that the players around him will do for him and therefore what's expected from him in return.

ESPNscrum: So the door's not closed on him joining Western Force next season?

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Michael Foley: Well, the door's not closed on anyone, you know, and that's not to move away from the question you're asking, but what we're doing all the time is looking at our squad, and at the moment, the focus for us is retention. We've got a lot of players coming out of contract that we're looking to retain, for the right reasons.

The guys here, I think, have a real sense of what it is they want to achieve and how they want to go about it, and that's really important. In my first two seasons here, we've had a fair turnover in the playing squad, and that was required, we believed, and we've now got a very good squad.

That doesn't mean we'll be completely stable; that'd be unrealistic and there'll be some change. But at the same time, the guys want to be here, and they want to be here for each other. In the true sense of the word "team", there is a real growing belief in those things.

ESPNscrum: I wanted to go over your coaching background: how do you look back on your transition from player to head coach of Western Force?

Michael Foley: I was very fortunate to have a number of very good coaches when I was playing, and I was always very interested in coaching from a few different perspectives, I suppose. Firstly, the strategy of the game; secondly, the preparation of the athlete; and thirdly - and though I mention it last, it's probably the most important - the culture of a team. And those were the three things that, to me, were always interesting.

My first exposure to professional coaching was the day after I played my last game. I played off the bench against the Barbarians [in Cardiff, in November 2001 - Australia won 49-35], and the next day I went to training at Bath.

That experience I had at Bath was excellent because it opened my eyes to northern hemisphere rugby. I had a reasonable feel for and exposure to southern hemisphere rugby obviously, but over 4½ years I was exposed to things that are unique to the northern hemisphere.

And the players we had at Bath were exceptional. But the first couple of seasons were really tough, because just prior to me arriving the club had released eleven fairly senior players and brought in a number of very young players from local schools and academy programs. We then went from two seasons battling relegation to making the final [in 2003-2004], and from there we were a lot more consistent. We didn't actually win a championship, but we certainly played a lot of finals over the next few years.

That experience was pretty confronting, and I think what I learned most out of that was how much I didn't know. And I'm sort of confronted with that regularly (laughs) because you feel you learn a lot but there's always a lot more to learn.

Michael Foley remembers fondly the Wallabies' victory at Twickenham in 2008 © Getty Images

Coming back to Australia, the Bath experience really helped prepare me for the work we undertook with the Australian forward pack that had been much maligned. When I arrived back, we said it was going to take a couple of seasons to get it right, and it was through the support of guys like Ewen McKenzie [then Waratahs coach], allowing me to come in work with his players during the Super Rugby season, that got us to the point where in 2008, and one of my really fond memories was Stephen Moore winning Man-of-the-Match at Twickenham after we pulled a couple of tight-heads out of their scrum. That was only 12 months after the unfortunate performance against England in the 2007 Rugby World Cup.

It just took us that time to gather some momentum, and get that credibility back, and get some consistency around what we were doing. But, again, another unique but rewarding experience.

Then, I was at the Waratahs for four years: the first year we missed the finals by a try, and the next two years we made the finals but didn't progress into the grand final; and the final season at the Tahs, which was tough again for different reasons.

ESPNscrum: In contrast to Dave Rennie, whom we spoke to recently, your two assistants this year were part-time consultants last year. How do you move forward with a completely new coaching team?

Michael Foley: I'll come back again to that point on culture. I think you start with values, and what you want to stand for, and then the next thing is getting the right people together. As much as we've talked about the recruitment of players, the staff are equally important to that.

We've got two guys here [defence coach Dave Wessels, and backs coach Kevin Foote] who are incredibly passionate about rugby, but they're also very passionate about coaching the person as much as coaching the player. And that's an enormous benefit to us, that their knowledge of the game is equally good to their knowledge of people. They have a real concern about the players, and I think they really helps us our messages, and that what we're expecting of our players we're modelling ourselves as staff.

ESPNscrum: How then do you measure success as a coaching panel? Is 2014 already a successful season for the Force, or are you a little way off where you need to be yet?

Michael Foley: No, we're still a fair way off and there's a couple of things on that. You set yourself goals, and we've done that as a team.

As much as there's been a lot of speculation around that, and I've heard different commentators throw up two or three different goals and I don't think anyone's got it quite right yet, but we've set ourselves goals and they're very personal to the team. So we'll mark our success against those things but we won't be able to say whether we've been successful or not until the season is over.

"I'm not going to talk about finals, and the reason I'm not going to talk about finals is because I think it would be very premature." Michael Foley

At the moment, we're tracking well, we're on target in terms of the number of wins, but even after the last few games, we sat down and said there were aspects of our game that we don't think we're doing as well as we can and we need to do better. And there's certainly no sense of satisfaction that if we were to finish the season now, that we would say we've done well. We've won more matches than we did last year, but it's still not the goal we've set ourselves.

You're quite right in asking that question, what does success look like for any given team, or for any person at any given time, but I think it comes back to what you set yourself as a goal, and whether or not you attain it, and we're on the journey toward that at the moment.

ESPNscrum: So you'd be disappointed if you didn't make the finals from here?

Michael Foley: (laughs) You're asking me that question, everyone's asking me that question! But I'm not going to talk about finals, and the reason I'm not going to talk about finals is because I think it would be very premature.

There's been enough discussion publically by people outlining that over the last two years it's taken 10 wins, but in actual fact two years ago 10 wins wasn't enough for the Brumbies to make the finals. So even with the number of wins we've had, if we're starting to think about finals now, we're kidding ourselves. What we've got to be thinking about is how we're going to play better right now, how we're going to improve on what we've done, and how we continue with the things we think we're doing well.

And as it starts to get a little closer to the end, we'll know whether we've done enough to make the second [part of the] competition.

ESPNscrum: Fair enough. Wondering then if you've got any thoughts on game trends and coaching trends that have changed over say, the last four or five seasons and even just in this season alone?

Michael Foley: Yeah, I think when you're looking at trends, you're always looking at the best teams, and the best teams in our part of the world have been the Chiefs, obviously, winning two Super Rugby titles, and being a side that converted themselves from being a high-scoring side that would sometimes win by 50 and then lose by 50, into a side under Dave [Rennie] and Wayne [Smith]that could find ways to win.

The <I>New Zealand Herald</I> celebrates a remarkable year for the All Blacks, November 26, 2013
Michael Foley learned from watching the 2013 All Blacks ©

The other side is the All Blacks, and how they've modified, or added to their game since they won the World Cup [in 2011]. If you look at them in isolation you certainly find out a lot; but if you look at how they've actually grown through that period, it tells you a little bit about where the game's gone but also how different strategies can bring different results.

Watching New Zealand in last year's Rugby Championship was an excellent exercise, because clearly they play a very entertaining style of game. But they actually had more possessions than any of the other teams, they held the ball for fewer phases, and the kicked the ball more than anybody else, yet they also scored the most tries.

And you can select any number of stats to paint a picture, but what I found really interesting was that they as a team had found other ways to create pressure, and through that pressure, points, than perhaps the All Blacks team that won the World Cup. And I think that growth under Steve Hanson, and the other things they were able to do in Tests last year was probably, to me, really looking at the game as a whole, and not being inhibited by style.

I think everyone accepts that attacking systems and defensive systems are really close now. Most teams now have a really organised defence, most teams challenge very hard at the breakdown with their defence, and it is very difficult to score tries from 80 metres, and you look at how many game were played in Super Rugby last year and look at the number of times that happened, and that gives you an indicator.

Even very good attacking teams, like the Chiefs, who scored 50 tries, didn't score a hell of a lot of tries from 80 metres, so you just have to accept that there are different things to do with defensive structures that can create problems for them and having the ball all the time isn't necessarily great quality ball, or if it's in the wrong parts of the field.

ESPNscrum: To finish, I'm wondering if you can suggest the best player you've coached?

Saracens Steve Borthwick looks to work an opening, Saracens v Stade Francais, Honourable Artillery Company Ground, London, England, August 23, 2012
Steve Borthwick "stands out for me as being a really special person", Michael Foley says © Getty Images

Michael Foley: Yeah, it's a tough one. You could look at it in so many different ways: who was the most naturally gifted player, or perhaps who was the player you most enjoyed sharing the journey with because it didn't necessarily come so easy to them.

I think Steve Borthwick at Bath definitely stands out for me. He was a guy who wasn't necessarily as big, or as athletic as other players he played against or with, but went on to become captain of England and is now in the last game of his career about to play a Heineken Cup final as captain of Saracens.

I think he's a guy who really stands out for me as being a really special person, and I find it hard to answer a question like this without thinking about the person behind the player, because that's story you're really fortunate as a coach to get an insight into.

And I think, just in the team we have now, Matt Hodgson is a really interesting guy, because he's very humble, he's very down to earth, and when a lot of people here came and went, he persevered. He's the first player to have played 100 games at the club, he's now the captain of the club, and he represents a lot of the good things we want to stand for.

I choose him only because of his persistence and his resilience, which are ... again, a lot of people talk about entertainment, and they talk about inspiration more recently. I do appreciate that those words, entertainment and inspiration, are often linked with skill, but I grew up believing that entertainment and inspiration was also linked with character, and I think the two players I've picked out there are full of character, and it's been a real privilege to have coached them.

Michael Foley has enjoyed working with Matt Hodgson © Getty Images
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