James Crombie; ©INPHO/James Crombie/INPHO
New Beginnings

'I didn't want to become complacent, stale or stagnant': Girvan Dempsey on leaving Leinster

Having spent his entire playing and coaching career with the province, the former full-back moved to Bath earlier this year.

GIRVAN DEMPSEY’S NINE-YEAR coaching ride has seen him learn and grow alongside some of the world’s best mentors en route from Leinster to Bath. These days as attack coach in England’s West Country, Dempsey is in the trade of magicians; working to master the field of deception.

Prior to joining Bath this year, Dempsey spent his entire playing and coaching career at Leinster. 

There, he enjoyed troubling times, and the exceptionally good. 

After a decorated playing career, which included Champions Cup success and 82 test caps, Dempsey transitioned to coaching in 2009, first taking charge of the Leinster academy while also leading the A team in the British and Irish Cup. 

Progressing to the senior side, Dempsey saw firsthand the Matt O’Connor upheaval, but then savoured his time with Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster. 

He credits Isa Nacewa’s major influence on the club; his selflessness off the field to relentlessly grow culture, set standards and values. He speaks glowingly of Sir Graham Henry’s impact during the 2016 preseason; his depth of experience challenging the coaching staff. And he talks about how much Lancaster brought to the group after his horrid time with England.

“Stuart was incredible,” Dempsey says. “He had a wealth of experience and knowledge and he’d obviously been through the mill. He was very open and honest about his own experience and was very willing to share that to help us grow.” 

Stuart Lancaster and Girvan Dempsey Dempsey speaks highly of his time with Stuart Lancaster. Ryan Byrne; ©INPHO / Ryan Byrne/INPHO Ryan Byrne; ©INPHO / Ryan Byrne/INPHO / Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“People forget when they look at the current situation with the success Leinster are having and depth they’re building. It’s only three years ago we were going through a lot of turmoil. We were last in the pool in Europe. We lost to Toulon home and away. We lost to Wasps and we lost to Bath away. 

“It was blooding a lot of young kids at that stage which helped down the track. On the back of that, those lessons really helped the group. That was the catalyst in terms of kicking on to the success they had.”

Pondering the prospect of leaving for some time, Dempsey linked with Bath after helping steer Leinster to the Pro14 and Champions Cup double. 

What better way to signoff and spread his wings.

The reality of staying in one club for such a long period of time it’s unfeasible. I knew as a coach I didn’t want to become complacent, stale or stagnant. I wanted to challenge myself.”

Travelling to New Zealand, where he spent time with then Chiefs coach Dave Rennie, now leading Glasgow, and Tana Umaga at the Blues, reinforced the need to move on.

“It was always in the back of my head that different environments work in different ways. It was a good opportunity to see how I could do that because I wanted to grow as a coach.”

Family was another factor. After much discussion with wife Anne-Marie, the decision was made that sons Peter, 9, and Patrick, 6, were ready for the move abroad. 

“There’s still a little bit of torn allegiances. I’m slowly transferring them across – they’ve got the jerseys and pants. It will be interesting come December time.”

Naturally, having learnt his coaching craft at home, in Dublin, Dempsey carried the fabric of his attacking vision from Leinster to Bath.  

Firstly, this involves an intense focus on skills often taken for granted. Not by teams such as the All Blacks, though. Watch them train and it’s soon evident why every player – from burley props to polished finishers – link so well across the field. 

Girvan Dempsey before the game Dempsey says that he made the move from Leinster to keep his career fresh. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

“No matter where you coach in the world it’s all around executing the fundamental basics. It’s how you train. Stuart was big on that as well. We make sure we trained at a certain intensity and level that we would be challenged to make decisions under fatigue and pressure. We would do that on a regular basis and look to continually develop our catch pass core skills.”

While counter attack produces many tries, striking off scrum and lineout is another major emphasis. Understanding individual roles is paramount, as is then being comfortable to carry the movement through unstructured phases where players are frequently out of position.

“I’m focused on making sure we master that area and make sure we score tries. We’ve managed to introduce a few plays which have had success but it’s an on-going process.”

In the age of invasive video analysis, set moves need constant adaptation.

“That’s what I enjoy about it and that’s what excites the players. It’s coming up with new ways to attack and new plays. When you do have success the defence is going to analyse that and there’s then opportunities to challenge them in a different way so they’re second guessing. 

“It is a game of bluff at times. That’s where Ireland has had success.   

“In the past they have gone out the back from a four man lineout but then they’ll turn and pivot for a little slip pass to Tadhg Furlong who goes straight through and offloads and they score off the back of that. 

“It’s fascinating to see the defence anticipate the same play. Coming up with those variations excites me. We’ve got some really good players here who are always keen to learn new strike plays but also learn and grow their knowledge in that area as well.”

Girvan Dempsey Dempsey spent time working alongside Ireland coach Joe Schmidt last year. Ryan Byrne; ©INPHO / Ryan Byrne/INPHO Ryan Byrne; ©INPHO / Ryan Byrne/INPHO / Ryan Byrne/INPHO

In this regard, Dempsey soaked up the experience of studying Joe Schmidt’s analytical rugby mind when he toured the USA and Japan with an emerging Irish group during last year’s British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand.

That was fascinating. It’s amazing to see how Joe has evolved as a coach and how he is evolving that group of players. Players at Leinster were accustomed to the level of detail. Joe was massive in that. His level of detail was phenomenal, beyond anyone I’ve ever come across in the past. Players that have worked under him craved that.”

“You look at the national team they are in a very healthy state. They’re really growing the depth in all positions across the board. Coming through this November internationals they’ll hopefully be in a good place to get a benchmark and some confidence going into the Six Nations and World Cup.”

Dempsey sees similarities between Leinster’s growth and where Bath now sits. 

While Todd Blackadder will be replaced, probably at least the end of next season, by former club captain Stuart Hooper, Dempsey’s long-term future at Bath is secure as he attempts to expand his contribution beyond the attack brief. 

“Within any coaching group it’s massively beneficial if you can add value in any other way. That’s what I like about Todd and the other coaches we’re all very open, very honest, and willing to learn from each other.”

Beyond Bath, a return to Ireland eventually appeals.

“There’s a whole lot of unknowns and uncertainty in professional sport but, certainly, that would be the hope for the future. I’m enjoying my time here at the moment.” 

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