lead by example

U20s boss McNamara an inspiration to coaches who weren't pro players

The Clare man’s path is one less travelled by.

WHEN THE FAMOUS basketball coach John Wooden is quoted in an interview, you can be sure enough that the interviewee is a keen student of the art of coaching.

Given that Ireland U20s boss Noel McNamara has no previous professional playing experience and, indeed, no notable rugby playing past at all, it’s clear that he is different to many coaches in the game.

Noel McNamara McNamara has had an impressive rise. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

McNamara is only 36-years-old but has risen through the ranks of school and underage representative coaching to his current position, which he balances with his work as an elite player development officer [EPDO] for Leinster.

Ask McNamara what success looks like and he cites one of Wooden’s mantras: “peace of mind attained only through self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you’re capable.”

While it remains to be seen how far McNamara’s best can take him as a coach in professional rugby, he is already serving as an inspiration to many others like him who haven’t first made their name out on the pitch.

“I think you have got to work hard no matter what,” says the Clare man when asked if it has been more difficult to progress without a playing CV behind him.

“If you have a strong playing career behind you it definitely puts you in a strong position to get in the door.

“The reality is that very quickly you realise that you have got to deliver and I think it was no different for me. I feel like I’ve worked hard but the reality is I’ve loved what I’ve done and enjoyed every second of it. It doesn’t feel like work.”

Hailing from the village of O’Callaghan’s Mills in County Clare, McNamara attended St Joseph’s in the nearby town of Tulla, where the GAA had the strongest grip on sporting interests.

It wasn’t until he went to the University of Limerick to study for a BSc in Physical Education and Maths that rugby really came onto the radar beyond being something McNamara enjoyed watching.

The highly-influential Dr. PJ Smyth, who passed away last year, became an important mentor for McNamara in UL.

A lover of rugby and a former Garryowen player, Smyth was a man who made huge contributions to the coaching of coaches in Ireland, inspiring and educating the likes of Eddie O’Sullivan and Tony Ward, as well as working with Declan Kidney and others.

Noel McNamara and Paul O'Connell McNamara and his Ireland U20s assistant coach, Paul O'Connell. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

McNamara describes Smyth as the “main catalyst” in him shifting his primary sporting focus from soccer, his first love, to rugby.

“He was a fascinating man to talk to about sport, particularly about rugby,” says McNamara of Smyth. “He had a passion for it. That would have been my introduction into how you think about it. I’ve always enjoyed watching it.

“PJ had just a different perspective on the game. We’re talking about the ’90s and PJ was talking about props that should be able to pass like a scrum-half. He was talking about a 15-man game before I heard anyone else talk about it.

“He certainly would be a big fan of Tadhg Furlong, I can tell you that!”

During his final year in UL, McNamara began coaching at Glenstal Abbey, before moving to teach and coach at Clongowes Wood College the following season.

He ended up leading Clongowes into four finals during his eight years in charge of their Senior Cup side, with trophy successes in 2010 and 2011 – the likes of Tadhg Beirne, Jordan Coghlan and the Byrne brothers, Ed and Bryan, featuring prominently.

His first representative side was the Leinster U19s – with Josh van der Flier, Eoghan Masterson, Dave Shanahan, Tom Farrell and Tom Daly all part of the squad – before five years in charge of the Leinster Schools team, and five in charge of Ireland Schools.

Qualified as a Level 5 IRFU coach, McNamara advanced on to become boss of the Leinster U20 & Development side, as well as an assistant to the province’s ‘A’ team.

“I would say I got huge encouragement from people like [Leinster coach and development manager] Gerry Murphy, in particular. He would have been hugely supportive and hugely influential in me continuing on in coaching,” says McNamara.

“I was very lucky to meet people like PJ Smyth and work in schools like Glenstal and Clongowes, where there’s a lot of support in place and there’s a great history of the sport already there.

Bobby Byrne with Noel McNamara McNamara with UCD director of rugby, Bobby Byrne. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

“So I think from my perspective, I would have received a lot of support from the IRFU and Leinster as well as the two schools.”

Having become employed full-time by Leinster as an EPDO via a spell as UCD’s head coach in the Ulster Bank League, McNamara is no longer teaching, focusing his full energy on guiding the young players under his watch to achieve their potential.

A key part of his philosophy in coaching is backing his players to be the decision-makers on the pitch.

“Decisions are a huge thing for me,” he says. “I firmly believe the players have to be able to adapt on the pitch, they have to be able to adapt to the pictures presented to them and they have to understand how to adapt and why they’re adapting.

“That’s a core part of my philosophy in coaching – the players are the ones who cross the white line on Friday night and you’ve got to have them in a position where they can make decisions.

“Part of that is that you’ve got to be prepared to allow them to make decisions during the week as well.”

Again, Wooden comes to mind here.

“A group free from the fear of having to check on everything with the leader has an energy for action that is formidable. It gets things done,” wrote Wooden, who died in 2010 at the age of 99.

McNamara will be hoping that the freedom he hands his Ireland U20s to make those decisions will bring the kind of energy Wooden is talking about over the course of the upcoming Six Nations.

He says he is “inherently competitive,” so winning games will always be a key part of the picture, but McNamara is also aware of the fact that every coaching position he has held so far has been about the development of the players involved, rather than just winning.

Jonny Stewart, Diarmuid Barron, Noel McNamara, Sean Masterson and Tommy O'Brien McNamara has an exciting U20s squad to work with. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

“It’s an interesting challenge and it’s been part of the challenge in my coaching across the board,” says McNamara of finding the balance.

“It’s a very important development time for these players and it’s really important that we create the right environment and atmosphere for that to take place. Equally, we want to be competitive.

“You look at previous years. What is the definition of success? It’s very difficult to quantify it.

“I certainly think when you see someone like Jordan Larmour, and how well the U20s prepared him for senior rugby. He’s gone from the U20s six months again to now being a first-choice starter for Leinster in the Champions Cup.

“You look at how Andrew Porter, James Ryan, Jacob Stockdale have gone from the U20s almost into the senior side. It is very difficult, right now, to quantify what that’s going to look like.

“We will certainly be looking to prepare the players for that next step as best as we possibly can. We will, equally, be looking to be as competitive as we possibly can in both tournaments.”

Judging an U20s coach can be a tricky process unless we are patient, with the results sometimes not obvious until years further down the line.

Whatever about those results, McNamara is already providing inspiration to a generation of ambitious young coaches who don’t have the benefit of a professional playing CV behind them.

Again, we can look to Wooden’s words to sum it up:

“A leader’s greatest teaching tool is perhaps his or her own example.”

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