NRC: Profile: Perth Spirit coach Tai McIsaac

by Staff Writer

Losses in the opening two games isn’t quite how the 2014 Finalists would have liked to start the second season of the Buildcorp National Rugby Championship, and Head Coach Tai McIsaac admits that his team has a lot of “little things” to rectify, if they’re to turn their fortunes around.

“Yeah, I think there’s obviously a lot of little, basic skill areas we need to work on, and just tidy up a bit,” McIsaac told week.

“Our structures and systems are OK, it’s just the execution of things we’re trying to do that will turn things around. The boys are obviously disappointed from the loss on the weekend, and I think that will give them a bit of a kick up the bum, to make sure they fix all those things they need to.”

Though the execution has certainly let themselves down at crucial times, Perth has already shown in the first two games of the competition that they possess one of, if not the strongest scrum in the competition. Yet despite this evident strength, and knowing already the importance of laying a platform from which to attack, McIsaac agrees that other aspects of the Spirit game just isn’t clicking of the back of their scrum set piece.

“We’ve done a bit of work on [the scrum], but it’s just the things we’re trying to do out of that, and off the side of that. There were a few times there on the weekend where we could have tried to milk a penalty out of our own end, to try and get ourselves out of there a bit easier, instead of trying to play out of there.

“Those are just the decisions from our halves, or our No.8s, to take the ball out of the scrum when they shouldn’t have, but I believe we were getting called by the ref to use those balls, which was a bit surprising.

“But yeah, I think our set piece in general is going pretty well, it’s just a matter of tidying up everything else we do around that.”

Certainly, the need to urgently blood a new no.10 has happened earlier than planned. Western Force player Luke Burton had his nose smashed in the opening minutes of the very first game of the season up in Brisbane, and looks set to miss a chunk of NRC matches. McIsaac doesn’t believe that has upset things too much, though.

“No, not so much. We’d planned a couple of guys around that [position]; we obviously hadn’t planned it so soon. It’s had a certain distraction, but we’ve had a young ’10’ who’s come in there [Cottesloe flyhalf Nick Jooste, off the bench], and he gained a little bit of experience last week, which was the plan, and then we’ll get him a bit more time this week.

“He’s only 17, and we have big hopes for him. He’s still at school at the moment, and we’re struggling with his school teachers at the moment, to get him away for training and things like that. But he shown some really good things at training, and he’s been training in and out with the Force all year, and filled in in some Force ‘A’ games for us and he’s done a really good job. We’re confident in what he can do.

“He’s quite a big kid, he’s six foot three, and he’s got quite a big frame on him, so you don’t really think he’s that young.”

With the NRC season so short, McIsaac acknowledges that the task that now confronts him, of turning the Spirit’s form around and launching a tilt on the Finals is “obviously” the biggest challenge of his short coaching career. With only six games to play, he knows that his side really can’t afford to drop games from here on.

But he also admits that that is one of the reasons players transition into coaching. Former hooker McIsaac played in the original Perth Spirit side back in the 2007 Australian Rugby Championship, as well as playing eight Tests for Australia and 67 Super Rugby games across seven seasons with the Western Force, and the Queensland Reds before that.

“Yeah, exactly. I think anyone who’s played sport, or anything competitive, you sort of keep that with you forever, and being able to challenge yourself and defeat the challenges you have is all part of it as well,” McIsaac said.

His transition into coaching was immediate. Whereas so many of his contemporaries - and dozens of players since - head to Japan for a playing stint first, McIsaac didn’t take the boots with him.

“As soon as I left here in 2009, I retired from playing and just went up there and coached with Honda for two seasons, and then I shifted to Toyota for three,” he said.

The grounding in coaching in Japan is a little different to what we know here in Australia, and McIsaac says it’s all because of the very industrial and corporate transition young people in Japan undergo once they finish up at university.

“It’s a very technical skill based grounding. Just the fact that a lot of Japanese players up there, their skill level is quite poor, so you’re doing a lot of micro-coaching. Whereas we take it for granted here that all our kids can catch-pass-kick and their general game awareness is pretty good, up there you’re teaching them everything from catch and pass - including hand and finger position on the ball, all those type of things.

“You’re also learning how to deal with squads, because most teams have fairly big squad sizes and so managing the logistics of training and that sort of thing is pretty big up there, and it’s a good learning ground.

“Some of the squads I had were anywhere between 45 and 55 players, so there’s a lot of making sure everyone’s doing something on the ground all the time; a lot of planning goes into it. When you’re doing opposed sessions of 15 on 15, just what to do with the other 15 or so players.

“The skill levels are quite vast, too; you’ve got international players Mark Gerrard and Ryan Kankowski, guys like that, and then you’ve got kids who are just coming out of a Japanese university and their levels are quite low.”

Honda Heat were promoted from the second division up to the Top League in McIsaac’s time there, and similarly, Toyota Shokki were promoted after McIsaac’s first season with the club. The focus on skills, and the speed at which you can up-skill is where the advantage over other sides is achieved.

“You can only really buy foreign players, and even then you can only have two on the field at once, so it makes it hard; you’ve really got to work with the players you’ve got,” McIsaac said. “Kids come in from uni over there, and that’s it, they’re in the company for life. They’re not jumping teams every couple of years like Super Rugby players are.”

McIsaac was ready to return to Australia, though, and even had discussions with Western Force coach Michael Foley about the returning for the 2014 season, though ultimately he remained with Toyota Shokki for one final year.

The opportunity to head up the Future Force squad is a good one though, with players like flanker Kane Koteka already emerging from the ‘academy-plus’ fast track program to play ten games with the Western Force in 2015, after standing out in the NRC last season.

The program is looking to expand, to include not just talented young Western Australian players, but recruit players from the east coast, South Africa, and the Pacific Islands, to “build a better foundation for our recruiting, and getting them a bit earlier.” Ultimately, it’s about broadening the rugby base in Perth, and giving the young players what they need to make the next step into professional rugby.

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