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Dublin: 9 °C Wednesday 16 October, 2019
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Ex-Connacht prop Wilkinson ready for Rapid Rugby as he builds reputation in Hong Kong

Brett Wilkinson traveled from South Africa to forge his playing career in Connacht, and he’s not letting Geography hold back his coaching prospects.

“I’M AN AMBITIOUS, coach,” says Brett Wilkinson, and the former Connacht stalwart hasn’t let mileage hold him back from progressing his new career.

Though he is just five years removed from the neck injury which cut his playing days short after his 183rd appearance for the western province, at 35 Wilkinson has already absorbed a wealth of coaching experience.

After testing the waters outside of rugby after retirement, he diverted his full focus to coaching with Buccaneers and succeeded in bringing the Athlone club to promotion from AIL Division 1B as well as a Connacht Senior Cup.

Brett Wilkinson and Conor McKeon Wilkinson with his coach of the year prize at the Connacht awards in 2017, with academy player of the year Conor McKeon. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

In the wake of those 2017 successes, Wilkinson followed in the footsteps of fellow former Connacht front row Dylan Rogers in heading east for Hong Kong and the ex-prop’s hunger for rugby is evident as he reels off the list of positions and responsibilities he holds while on the payroll of the Hong Kong Rugby Union.

His wife Patrice is also settled and working for HSBC in private banking, but Wilkinson had to be patient and maintain confidence in his methods during rocky beginnings while heading up the rugby team within Hong Kong Cricket Club.

“In my first year at Cricket Club, we battled and only won one game all season,” he tells The42, “only winning once, you learn a lot about yourself and you question a lot of things.”

The answer to at least one aspect came at the administrative level. The nature of working within a long-established cricket club brought inherent constraints. So when the opportunity came to lift the senior rugby setup wholesale and add it to the thriving junior setup at HKU Sandy Bay, Wilkinson leapt at it.

It took time for the semi-professional side to click into their rhythm in the new season under a new name and Wilkinson’s questions must have echoed all the louder as his win ratio deteriorated. But once the tide turned, they proved unstoppable.

“Up until Christmas, we had only won two games, but we came back and won five on the bounce.”

fc4f543b-d370-445a-bf39-3bb578db9e9e Wilkinson, left, with fellow ex-Connacht man Dylan Rogers, right.

Five straight, with bonus points. The 25-point surge took Wilkinson’s squad from the foot of the table into the playoffs and a semi-final collision course with league front-runners HKFC. The fairytale season was underlined by a thumping 31-10 win over the favourites and crowned by a narrow win, a record seventh on the trot, over HK Scottish in the final.

On top of his head coaching role, Wilkinson works as scrum coach for the Hong Kong senior men’s side and also the South China Tigers, who embark on their campaign in the novel Global Rapid Rugby competition. 

The tournament – played with varied rules such as 70-minute matches and time limits on scrums – kicked off its second season this weekend and also features a Robbie Deans-coached World XV headed up by the likes of Gio Aplon, Digby Ioane, Nick Cummins and Corey Flynn with sides representing Samoa, Fiji and the former Super Rugby entity of Western Force.

With those solid lines of communication in place with rugby hotbeds in Australia and New Zealand, Wilkinson is nicely positioned in the former colony should opportunities to advance come his way. He will create those chances too as he continues to encourage expansive, attacking rugby just as he did with Buccaneers.

“They’re really skillful and quick. So it’s like playing a different game, most of the games are on 4g pitches so it’s fast, quick and skillful. and I’m doing a hell of a lot of coaching on the field which is great.”

Brett Wilkinson Wilkinson on commentary duties at the Sportsground. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Wilkinson is fully invested in his current roles and is excited about the growing popularity of rugby across the whole region thanks to the forthcoming World Cup in Japan – which Hong Kong, unfortunately, missed out on qualifying for – he is set up to continue coaching with Sandy Bay, the national side and the South China Tigers for the coming years, but he is intent on soaking up more experience while growing his reputation on the road less traveled.

“You come over here and immerse yourself in it,” says Wilkinson of his transition from Connacht to the fourth most densely-populated place on the planet.

“It’s easy, when you’re in a rugby environment, to immerse yourself in it. I’m an ambitious coach and I want to progress. The more you do and the more you immerse yourself in it – the more you put in the more you’ll get out.

It’s up to me to learn as much as I can and to get better.”

“I’m here for another two years at least and I’m learning a hell of a lot. I’m adding skills to the toolbox and making myself a more rounded coach.

“I’m getting valuable experience here and I’ve learned a hell of a lot and developed so much as a coach over here. What the future holds, who knows?

The distance won’t be an issue.

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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