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Irishman McWilliams bringing Ivy League's Yale to new levels

The former Ireland Women’s assistant coach is enjoying life in the States.

YALE IS RENOWNED as an academic institution that gathers and improves some of the greatest intellects in the US, but an Irishman is hoping that the Ivy League university soon becomes known for its rugby prowess.

Greg McWilliams McWilliams at the 2014 Women's Rugby World Cup.

Dublin native Greg McWilliams is almost 10 months into his role as Yale’s Director of Rugby, having moved to the States to take up the position following last year’s Women’s World Cup, where he acted as assistant coach in Ireland’s drive to the semi-finals.

A former St. Michael’s, Blackrock and Leinster underage coach too, McWilliams is immensely enjoying the challenge of his first full-time rugby job, having put his previous life as a Geography and Business teacher on ice.

Rugby is the dream and McWilliams’ passion for the game has landed him in Connecticut. As the sport rapidly grows in the US, his position at Yale is opening doors and exposing him to several of rugby’s most elite coaches.

McWilliams has had to begin with utterly foundational building blocks in the Yale rugby programme, given that some of the players he started working with had never played the sport before.

What has made the job so much easier is his squad’s willingness and thirst to learn.

“It’s just such a good place and you’re dealing with such intelligent kids here,” says McWilliams. “They’re so willing to work hard, learn and get better. Some of them had never played before, so it was just about getting them to watch the game more often, observing elite players in action.”

The Ivy Rugby Conference, played among the eight Ivy League schools, started soon after McWilliams arrive in the States, meaning he had to wait for the winter break until he had a chance to properly implement his fresh ideas and work more vigorously on the players’ skills.

Team Photo McWilliams with his Yale squad. Source: Yale Rugby

He admits “we have an awfully long way to go to get competitive with the likes of [rival university] Dartmouth [who are coached by Irishman Gavin Hickie], but the guys are well up for it.”

Progress did come in the shape of qualification for the quarter-finals of the national championships, though the real barometer of improvements will arrive next season with McWilliams’ methods fully embedded.

Crucially, McWilliams has the full support of the ‘Friends of Yale’ rugby board, a group of “incredibly impressive” businesspeople who the former Ireland Women’s coach admits he is learning great amounts from.

Rugby now is the fastest growing sport in America, and the administration are really shifting in terms of trying to be more competitive than the other Ivy League competitors,” says McWilliams of the progress in Yale.

“We’re now in the varsity gym, which is great because we’ve access to the varsity coaches who are just superb. We’ve got a new match pitch. We’re sending five players over to the Chiefs in New Zealand for the summer. All of this is because we have an administration that sees rugby as the growing sport that it is in America.”

The influence of another Irishman has been important in Yale’s growth too, with former Munster player Ross Callaghan having worked with the university’s forwards since a tour to South America in March.

Callaghan, formerly the strength and conditioning coach for Ireland Women, is set to return to Yale in August in order to continue that good work.

IMG_0150 McWilliams [right] with Liam Messam and Tom Coventry of the Chiefs.

From his own personal development point of view, McWilliams is also fortunate to have dealt with the likes of Wayne Smith, Robbie Deans and Dave Dillon in the past year.

Dillon, a former Blackrock player/coach and now the Chiefs’ player identification and development manager in New Zealand, visited Yale to present to the squad on team culture and has “opened up a lot of doors” for McWilliams.

Former Australia coach Deans, meanwhile, spent the best part of a week coaching, observing and encouraging Yale during a visit to the State.

“Robbie Deans has a daughter in Yale, a freshman who is a varsity rower,” explains McWilliams. “One of the kids on my team had said ‘There’s a friend of mine who’s in first year, and her dad kind of coaches rugby, can I pass on your email?

I passed on my email address and there at the bottom of a message a couple of days later was ‘Robbie Deans, Panasonic Wild Knights head coach’.”

Through Dillon, “a very old friend,” McWilliams also arranged a visit to New Zealand to observe and learn from the Chiefs in January, having previously spent time with the Blues back in 2011.

Being around world-class coaches like Smith and Deans has taught McWilliams a huge amount.

“It’s everything. Watching the way someone like Wayne Smith, Andrew Strawbridge [also of the Chiefs] or Dave Dillon have set up the environment for players to just learn about the game in an intelligent way.

Untitled McWilliams' men benefit from superb facilities for their gym work. Source: Yale Rugby

“Everything is player-led. They’re obviously at a totally different level, but at the same time they’ve got traits in how they talk to players that you can learn from. Everything is a question or demands an understanding from the players.

“Players have a huge amount of ownership so that means they’re going to be hugely invested in what they’re doing. The Chiefs players are so invested in what they’re doing and you can see why they’re doing so well.”

On the ground back in the States, McWilliams is also relishing working with the likes of the national team’s head coach Mike Tolkin and assistant Justin Fitzpatrick, the former Ireland and Ulster prop.

Indeed, McWilliams’ rise in the coaching world has continued with an appointment to USA Rugby as assistant coach of the Men’s Collegiate All-Americans squad, essentially a development programme for future international stars.

McWilliams will be working alongside fellow Irishman Gavin Hickie, who is in charge of rugby at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and has been appointed as head coach of the Collegiate All-Americans.

“I’m super excited to work with Gav” says McWilliams of former Leinster hooker Hickie.

“He’s got a great way about him, he’s so knowledgeable and he’s done such good work since he’s got here. He knows the system so well, so just to learn from him and the other coaches will be great.”

Greg McWilliams McWilliams previously worked with some of the best female players in the world.

The Collegiate All-Americans have only recently taken on a remit beyond the previously existing one of rounding up the best college players in the country for a series of games at the end of the season.

Now, with Hickie, McWilliams and Clemson coach Justin Hickey involved, the All-Americans programme will involve a year-round scouting, monitoring and development structure for future international players.

McWilliams will be tasked with coaching the backs when the squad does come together, potentially for a tour to Australia in August, but also with identifying backs who have the potential to play for the Eagles, the senior US men’s team, at the 2019 and 2023 World Cups.

The sheer scale of the US means McWilliams will have to continue to grow his network in order to maintain regular contact with college coaches who can flag outstanding talent.

“Working in the States is the equivalent of the head coach living in Dublin, the assistant coach living in Russia, the strength and conditioning coach in Italy and then a physio in Turkey,” says McWilliams.

People in USA have to travel such massive distances. In Dublin you’re trying to recruit a player and they’re humming and hawing about making a 25-minute commute through traffic. If I ever get the opportunity to go back to Ireland, I’ll be happy to commute two hours to work!”

McWilliams has adapted and continues to learn, while his wife Sarah has settled in too after making the move from Ireland with him. 10 months in and already a role with USA Rugby secured, things continue to look promising for McWilliams.

“I’ll admit that there’s not a day that goes by where you don’t miss home and realise how lucky you were back there. It was important to go away and develop as a coach though, and I’m happy here. I’m just constantly trying to become better.”

Former Leinster hooker Hickie guiding US rugby’s future stars

Good lord… this All Blacks second row just morphed into Bryan bloody Habana

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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