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'Any job I did, no matter how big or small, was a test of my character and ability'

Irishman Owen Tarrant has worked with the Chiefs in New Zealand and is now with the Kobelco Steelers in Japan.
Apr 30th 2020, 8:05 PM 19,163 4

WHEN WAYNE SMITH, one of the greatest rugby minds ever, invites you for dinner in County Offaly there’s only one answer.

West Clare man Owen Tarrant knew Smith well from his time working as a sports scientist with the Chiefs in New Zealand and had been over to visit ‘The Professor’ in Japan, where Smith is director of rugby with Kobelco Steelers, the reigning Top League champions.

But Tarrant wasn’t expecting an offer to uproot and move to Kobe. Smith was persuasive, though, and the Irishman is now more than a year into his time with the Japanese club.

WhatsApp Image 2020-04-28 at 09.30.10 (1) Tarrant, second from right, with Andy Ellis, Hayden Parker and Kobe Steelers head coach Dave Dillon.

Currently back in his hometown of Kilrush with the Japanese season cancelled due to the Covid-19 outbreak, Tarrant has time to reflect on a remarkable seven years that have seen him work with the Chiefs, Munster, and now in Kobe.

It’s not a shabby CV for a man who’s still 27.

Tarrant was a handy player in his teenage years, coming from Kilrush RFC to play for Munster underage sides and make a move to Young Munster, coached by Mike Prendergast at that time, before injuries slowed his progress and interest in playing.

Tarrant’s Sport and Exercise Science degree in UL allowed him to take advantage of the university’s internship connection with the Chiefs in New Zealand at the start of 2013 and his career kicked off with what was supposed to be one semester in Hamilton.

The Chiefs were the reigning Super Rugby champions and would defend their title that year as the likes of Bundee Aki, Aaron Cruden, Gareth Anscombe, Sam Cane and Brodie Retallick shone.

“Initially, the intern role was a lot of remedial jobs, the donkey work you might call it – setting up training, setting up gym sessions – and it was only really at the end of the year that I realised how much I had learnt from being in the environment,” says Tarrant.

The Chiefs had just signed up to use STATSports’ GPS system for tracking players’ performance data and Tarrant made himself part of the process.

“I saw an opportunity because no one was really taking on that role of doing the man hours with it. It was real luck for me that they needed someone to look after it, really good timing.

“But I went with the mentality that everything is a test. Any job I did, no matter how big or small, was a test of my character and my ability to work in a team. I guess they saw the value of that.”

As Tarrant took on responsibility with the GPS, he delighted in being around the quality of players at the Chiefs, as well as a world-class coaching team of Dave Rennie, Smith, Andrew Strawbridge, and Tom Coventry.

“I don’t think you could come across a better coaching group, it was unbelievable. They all saw each other as co-coaches, like what Smithy and Graham Henry did back in the day with the All Blacks.

WhatsApp Image 2020-04-28 at 09.30.10 Tarrant [right] celebrates the Top League Cup success last year.

“I learned so much from team meetings. You’re a sponge. A lot of it wasn’t the coaches, it was player-led. Aaron Cruden would lead a lot of the backs reviews. I was learning so much about the game, you saw things faster from just being in those reviews.”

Keen to help out in any way, Tarrant even found himself thrown in on the wing with the opposition teams in training at times.

The Chiefs successfully defended their title and Tarrant presumed he would be heading back to UL with cherished memories, only to be offered a full-time role just a week after the final against the Brumbies. There wasn’t a moment’s hesitation.

On the other end of the phone, his mother worried about his college degree but Tarrant was able to defer it for the two years of his contract with the Chiefs as an assistant sports scientist.

While learning from mentor figures Brett Smith and Phil Healy, he continued to work on the GPS, assisted in the gym, and focused on ‘invested players’ – youngsters with major potential like current All Black Atu Moli. More hands-on and with more responsibility, Tarrant loved the role.

“Things like taking Sonny Bill Williams for a few sessions one-on-one when he was coming back from injury, they trusted me to do those jobs.”

His time in New Zealand ended in 2015 as he had visa issues and his degree back in Ireland was calling out to be completed, while the Chiefs’ coaching group was breaking up at that stage too.

Back in Ireland, he took on a role as head of S&C for Young Munster, putting into practice what he had learned at the Chiefs, before switching to the same position with Garryowen in 2017.

That was the year Tarrant started with Munster too, initially joining on six-week placement as cover but ending up securing a job as the province’s assistant academy S&C coach, working under Damien O’Donoghue.

“The academy was perfect because it was just myself and Damo looking after 20 or 30 lads. You do everything – the return to play, planning, the gym, talking to coaches, everything.”

In 2016, Tarrant had started a master’s degree in primary school teaching through Hibernia College, with Munster supportive in allowing him to provide himself with a back-up option.

Tarrant Tarrant in the Steelers' gym as Dan Carter trains.

Teaching, of course, has relevance to coaching of all kinds, as illustrated by the likes of Stuart Lancaster, Joe Schmidt, and Smith – who ended his third stint with the All Blacks [helping them to the 2015 World Cup during this one] and joined the Kobelco Steelers in 2018.

The Chiefs had partnered with the Kobe club in 2014, taking young Japanese players over to New Zealand and visiting Japan to provide coaching, so it was an obvious fit for Smith after stepping away from the All Blacks.

Tarrant had “a brilliant relationship” with Smith at the Chiefs and kept in contact afterwards, naturally getting in touch again when the Kiwi revealed his cancer diagnosis in early 2018.

That summer, Smith asked Tarrant to visit the Steelers to help him get the Top League side’s GPS structures up and running. Also at the club was head coach Dave Dillon, another former Chiefs man, but Tarrant didn’t realise he would be back over permanently himself.

Smith and his wife later visited Ireland for a tour of the River Shannon, when Tarrant received that invitation to dinner in Offaly along their route. The dream in Japan was sold and Tarrant made his latest career move in March 2019 on a two-year contract as a sports scientist and S&C coach.

“It was a massive decision because Munster was going well and there was a great bunch in the academy, I loved the job.

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“But I was excited about Japan being a bit of a blank canvas, being able to have an impact on the structures and systems. Working with Smithy again was a big draw, then living somewhere I would probably never get a chance to again. The World Cup in Japan was ahead, there’s the Olympics still, and Kobe were a championship-winning team.”

Dan Carter was the star name at the Steelers, who won the Top League Cup after Tarrant joined, while the likes of Brodie Retallick, Andy Ellis, and several Japanese World Cup players were part of their six-wins-from-six start to the 2020 season before it was cut short.

Interestingly, those big-name players are in the minority in Kobe and at the other Japanese clubs, all of which are attached to bigger companies like Kobelco, Toyota, Yamaha, and Panasonic.

Tarrant explains that over 70% of their playing squad are employees of Kobleco and have to fit their semi-professional rugby careers around company jobs. That means interesting challenges for Tarrant and the rest of the sports science and S&C department.

“But the company are brilliant in letting the boys come out to training and we do link in with them a huge amount. Smithy has also developed the whole culture around the company.

“You almost see yourself as working for the company with the rugby club being part of it.”

wayne-smith Wayne Smith has been a big influence on Tarrant. Source: Photosport/Andrew Cornaga/INPHO

Japanese clubs are renowned for the intensity and duration of their training sessions, with some putting in two or three hours a day even in match weeks, but Dillon and Smith have overhauled the approach in Kobe.

“Smithy is really big on the psychological side of things and avoiding mental fatigue. He values family time a lot so makes part of the day compulsory for that family time. It means training needs to be spot on all the time.”

Unsurprisingly, Smith is massive on culture in Kobe too and Tarrant says it has been a joy to be around ‘The Professor’ during his own career.

“There’s lot of focus on gratitude in Kobe and we have a mental skills programme running throughout the whole organisation, which is unreal. It’s pretty special and we do a lot of really cool things.

“Wayne is really open to listening to anyone’s perspective and he’s very approachable. He’s a good man and he cares a lot about the person and the club. He’s easy to get on with.

“From a rugby point of view, he’s just so simple in his approach. If you were to come to training, you’d know what his whole philosophy is within five minutes.

“The players are really clear on what they want to do, the coaches know exactly what they want to coach. It’s just so simple but so effective.”

Incredibly, the Steelers’ next scheduled game isn’t until January 2021 and the new Top League season but Smith and Dillon have been keeping the staff and players occupied even though they’re spread out around the world right now.

For his part, Tarrant is excited to get back to Japan whenever this is all over and pick up where he left off.

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Murray Kinsella

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