NRC: Profile: Sydney Stars head coach Peter Playford

by staff

The Stars are shining early in the Buildcorp National Rugby Championship, with Sydney notching an impressive win over the North Harbour Rays at Manly Oval last Saturday afternoon.

It is, in fact, the Stars’ second consecutive win in NRC matches, and they’ve even kept their unbeaten run against the Rays intact too, with their first win coming in Round 9 last season, the match now infamous for North Harbour prop Mitch Lewis’ ground-breaking ‘own try’ at Brookvale Oval.

Playford was obviously impressed with his side’s first outing for 2015, and particularly with how the Stars were able to fight back from the Rays’ early 13-0 lead and lead 37-13 at halftime themselves.

“The boys were saying it was probably just a lack of communication early doors, and when you bring together, they were a little spooked,” Playford told this week.

“When you’ve got the likes of Dave Dennis and Pat McCutcheon in your team, and those kind of guys, you can pull it back in pretty quickly. I think we scored 37 points in about 19 minutes, so it was a great start, to come back like that.”

When you talk to Peter Playford, it becomes fairly apparent fairly early on in the piece that he’s not your typical rugby coach. The former Sydney Uni-Waratahs-Brumbies-Sydney Roosters winger admits he never really considered coaching as an option when he was playing, but that injury while playing opened the door for him to dabble with the clipboard.

Stars’ Media Release this season have featured quotes from Playford not on things like the set piece, or maintaining possession, but of entertainment and a disinterest in ‘me-players’ and, I kid you not, bearded ladies. But Playford - who doubles as General Manager-Sales for Sunshades Eyewear - still has a clear passion for the game, and that’s the major reason why he’s rising through the ranks in this coaching caper.

Playford tells his story, ahead of the Stars’ first home game for 2015, against Queensland Country:

“I never sat there analysing the game [as a player]; I never was a real dominant personality in the training setup. I used to love getting in there - enjoying on- and off-field activities - but ripping in at training, and trying to be a bit of energy, but never one to be that coach,” Playford explains.

“But then I got injured in 2009, I wasn’t quite ready to give up my Tuesday and Thursday nights to life, so I got back down there and coached the [Sydney University] Colts.

“And Colts is a really interesting team to start with, because I believe it’s a necessity for all successful rugby players, to have that experience of coming out of school and going into that Colts program, but being at a university, Wednesday nights are ‘College Nights’. So it kind of led into my coaching, where I started to work with the boys on the Thursday, and say, ‘look, life is about balance - always have a good time, but when it’s time to train, train’.

“And in that period, I coached Nick Phipps and Bernard Foley as the 9 and 10. And we had Tom English, we had Alex Rokobaro (former Melbourne Rebels, now with Calvisano in Italy); we had a few guys who have gone on, so I was very fortunate (Uni won the 2009 Colts Premiership), but that gave me a taste.

“I took a year off, but then I was given the 3rd Grade team, which taught me some real foundations. It’s a really interesting grade to coach, because you’ve got people dropped from 2nd Grade, it’s normally on a different field, you’ve got guys that stay there in 3rd Grade and guys that want to go to 2nd Grade, guys from 4th Grade who come up, and guys who are just happy to be in 3rd Grade.

“It really teaches you how to balance individuals, and that was when my work career started to go as well, because you’ve got similar stuff in business. You’ve got people who want to be really ambitious, some people who are just happy doing what they do; some people under pressure.

“I’ve been selfish in the fact that I’ve got no real aspirations to become a career coach, but there are so many synergies between rugby and business, and I’m learning every day in an environment where I get results, and I get to talk to the players about trying things, and then translate that into business.

“One day [University 1st Grade Coach, and new Waratahs assistant for 2016] Chris Malone said to me when I was coaching 3rd Grade, that he wanted me to teach him how to make people smile during training. It’s a big thing; it’s that extra five percent and I’m big on it. That enjoyment or that curiosity to get better, that’s the five percent that you’ve got to unleash.

“That’s where I found my strength, and I worked with ‘Nobby’ for three years [as an assistant], and was then offered this opportunity to coach in the NRC, and it’s a real honour, because you don’t often get these opportunities in life, to be able to reach the top of your game and to be able to influence a program.

“My coaching is definitely more around the themes and the energy, and making sure I can lead a group of people - including coaches - and manage to get the best out of them.”

So while it becomes clear that Playford has a different approach and different philosophies about rugby, the technicalities of the game are still well covered. His coaching team at the Stars includes former teammates and opponents; 67-Test Scottish and former Eastern Suburbs flyhalf, Dan Parks, and Uni stalwarts, Tim Davison and David Lyons. Playford says everyone is bringing the best out of each other.

Lyons only just finished playing himself earlier this year with Stade Français in France, and Playford says even after just a few weeks working with the former Waratahs and Wallabies No.8, “Australian Rugby should just sign him up.” Interestingly, Playford says that none of the coaching team are being paid; “None of us do it for money, and to get calibre of person willing to sacrifice, it shows their willingness to get these kids to the next level.”

A key part in pushing those kids to the next level comes in the form of his Super Rugby-experienced forwards, Dennis and Wallabies hooker James Hanson - who both played with Playford for the original Melbourne Rebels in the 2007 Australian Rugby Championship - and Sevens-bound backrower McCutcheon.

“It’s hard to buy experience,” Playford says. “And I think where this competition will be won and lost will be the ability of those older players to bring on the best of the younger guys.”

“Dave Dennis didn’t want to be Captain because it went against our mantra of pushing and teaching the youth. We’re big believers in that this competition is about getting that next generation up to speed.

“So Dennis, Hanson, McCutcheon, they’re there to give stability, but they’ll be the first to admit that some of these young guys have got the jump on them, and I think they might even enjoy it, you know.

“It’s more the confidence they bring to the young guys. In a team full of young kids, you’re reluctant to chance your arm, because you need that older figure to watch over you and guide you, and as a coach, you can’t do it; you can’t be out there on the field with them like in the Under-6s. Though ’Denno’ would like me to say he probably ran behind the boys a bit; he was the Under-6s coach behind them!”

It’s fair to say that the 2014 NRC didn’t go well for the Sydney Stars, but it’s already evident that Playford might just be the guy to bring all the right ideas into a young club, full of young players, playing in a young competition.

“I am what I am,” Playford says. “I’m a very professional person; I’ve got to the top of my field in business. I just know the importance of a really fresh program, and surrounding yourself with really good people, and then giving these guys the right to express their freedom, because there’s some really talented people in Australian rugby.”

And it’s here that the children’s nursery rhyme - which now doubles as the Stars’ victory song - takes over:

Twinkle, twinkle, little Star. How I wonder what you are...

Because Peter Playford plans to find out.

Watch Peter Playford's Sydney Stars take on Queensland Country in Round 2 of the 2015 Buildcorp National Rugby Championship LIVE on FOX SPORTS 2 from 7.30pm.