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'There's something special about the red jersey... Munster always meant a lot to me'

Laura Guest has gone from captaining Munster to inter-pro success to leading them as head coach.

THE FIRST HALF of September is always a busy time of the year for Laura Guest in her role as a Maths and Applied Maths teacher at Midleton College.

Now in her 11th year at the Cork school, Guest’s September has been even more hectic this time around thanks to her position as Munster Women’s head coach, with the Inter-provincial Series having been moved from its previous slot in December.

Guest, a 36-cap Ireland international, is now in her second season in charge of Munster and this evening is a big one for the Templebryan woman.

Laura Guest Guest is in her second season in charge of Munster. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Munster defend their inter-pro title against Leinster in a winner-takes-all clash at Donnybrook at 7.30pm, having pipped their rivals to last year’s trophy in a dramatic encounter at Thomond Park.

That success in 2017 ensured a dream start in the job for Guest, who starred for Munster with great pride during her playing days.

“That game against Leinster in Thomond Park was a special one, right down to the wire, and it was great for the girls to play there in such a big game,” says Guest, who hung up her boots in 2014.

“It was fantastic to get that win, but I said it regularly last year and again this year – I’m fortunate that I have some of the best players in the country playing for Munster.

“Anyone who has ever played for Munster and pulled on the red jersey, or most of us who have even been a Munster fan, there’s something special about the red jersey.

“You’re working with the best of the best and all of them want to be there so it makes your job a little easier. At the same time, there’s an expectation in Munster and that can be a challenge.”

Speaking about her role as head coach, Guest laughs and says, “Often, I think it would be easier to be still playing but my body wouldn’t quite be up to it!”

The truth is that Guest loves coaching. Talented in several sports, she initially coached hockey at Midleton College, before a move into rugby around eight years ago.

Laura Guest and Mona Fehily Source: James Crombie/INPHO

There was a spell coaching with UCC too, then she joined Highfield RFC as a player/coach – “a huge learning curve,” says Guest – and drove the Cork club towards their AIL Cup and Munster Cup double in 2013.

Having helped Midleton to Mungret Cup successes as well as working with Munster’s regional development programme, Guest was a clever choice as head coach of the province in 2017.

“Munster always meant a lot to me,” says Guest, who captained the province to inter-pro success in her final season in 2014. “When this role came up, it was a no-brainer for me.”

Guest featured in the front row, second row and back row as a player, taking part in three World Cups and helping Ireland to their Grand Slam in 2013.

While the transition from playing to coaching naturally means shifting certain perspectives, Guest feels her interaction with Munster’s players benefits from her experience of being on the other side of the conversation.

“My dealings with a player and feedback that way is something I would have learned from my coaches, both what I liked and didn’t like – they are intertwined that way,” says Guest, who also had spells playing with Clonakilty, Shannon and UL Bohs. 

The 33-year-old’s coaching philosophy is heavily based around giving her players autonomy on the pitch, an approach she realised was best from early in her coaching journey.

“You could be standing on the sideline with a schoolboys team and you would hear the opposition coach roaring and shouting, telling which player to move where, trying to control everything from the sideline,” explains Guest.

Munster players celebrate winning Munster are up against a strong Leinster team this evening. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“Very early on coaching the boys, I realised that this isn’t what it should be like. You put a group on the pitch and you allow them to make their own decisions.

“If there are bits you’re questioning, you talk to the players afterwards and figure out what their thought process was. That’s how I like coaching – I try my best to prepare them but when they go onto the pitch, it’s up to them. Player input is massive because they’re the ones in charge of the game.”

In that regard, Guest repeatedly and modestly underlines how lucky she is to be working with such a strong Munster squad, with senior players who are capable of making strong decisions and offering up educated opinions.

“One of the most important things in a coaching environment is to realise pretty quickly that you don’t know everything and you need to rely on those who know certain areas very well,” says Guest.

Guest stresses the importance of the work of the backroom team around her too.

Team manager Maeve D’Arcy, physio Kathryn Fahy, strength and conditioning coach Lorna Barry, backs coach David Lombard, and skills coaches Mike Storey and Ben Martin are all part of a team that Guest says has “no ego.”

Guest has been excited to welcome five of last year’s Munster U18s Girls players – Enya Breen, Orla Curtin, Sarah Garrett, Emily Lane, and Andrea Stock – into her squad for the inter-pros this season and says “the challenge is still trying to keep them in the game, even though they’ve made that step to senior rugby.”

Her passion for the sport is obvious but Guest feels that being in charge of Munster may be the limit of her scope as a coach. International rugby was always the ultimate as a player, but the same goal might be unrealistic as a coach.

Laura Guest with her team after the game Guest captained Munster to inter-pro success in 2014. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“The way that set-up is going, it’s moving towards something more full-time and more a professional set-up,” says Guest. “That’s great for the game.

“For me, I’m a teacher first and foremost, so I can’t see how they would compliment each other moving up the ranks.

“In that sense, I’m not sure there’s a clear pathway of where to go next but I do think the IRFU putting a more permanent structure in place is something that was needed and hopefully will pay off in the women’s game.”

There seems little doubt that Guest will continue to help drive the development of women’s rugby either way, even if her only focus right now is on making it back-to-back inter-pro titles for Munster.

“For anyone born and bred in Munster, to play Leinster for anything is always exciting,” says Guest with a knowing laugh.

“It doesn’t matter what it’s for, what sport, there’s something about Munster against Leinster and certainly there was no roaring and shouting needed at training this week.

“The girls know exactly the challenge ahead of them. They all know each other so well, they’re friends off the pitch eventually, but not when Munster and Leinster are playing!” 

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Murray Kinsella

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