New code, same blue: Phil Bailey's plan to turn NSW into Super Rugby heavy hitters

Super Rugby
by Iain Payten

Former Kangaroo forward Phil Bailey wants to bring more aggression to the Waratahs defence in 2020 but YouTube may have to be called upon to pass on his personal experiences.

Bailey, who has been added to the NSW staff as defence coach following the departure of Steve Tandy, was a feisty backrower and centre in a 12-year rugby league career that saw him playing 200 games in the NRL and Super League.

He also played for Australia and the NSW Blues in 2003, and Bailey's one-on-one scrap with Shane Webcke in game two is remembered by league fans. 

But Bailey jokes his Origin exploits won't count for much among a young Waratahs squad. Or not without a bit of Googling anyway.

"For all the young ones ... I am long gone," he said. "They have no idea who I am. They were about 10."

A majority in the Waratahs were under five in 2003, in fact, but Bailey's reputation will no doubt grow at the end of his first week.

YouTube also serves up a handbag-swinging session between Bailey and a young Sonny Bill Williams, which was both ill-advised and a good pointer for young Waratahs forwards about not taking a backward step.

For a green squad like the 2020 Waratahs, building a staunch defence can be a foundation stone for the future, Bailey believes. 

"Defence is such a big part of the arm-wrestle in rugby league, and everyone is in on it; it’s an everyday thing in rugby league,” Bailey said.

"Here, these guys do defence fantastic and well too, but we just want a bit more focus on the individual tackle technique and the different styles as well.

"We are looking for more dominant tackles this year, and to be more of an aggressive Waratahs side. To try and take the ascendancy to the opposition.

"Everyone can defend. Everyone has a different attacking  skillset, and some of that is God-given. But defensively it’s an attitude thing, it’s also a fitness and an aggression thing. Everyone can be a good defender."

Bailey's addition to the Waratahs staff is part of the defence coach merry-go-round caused by Matt Taylor’s move to the Wallabies.

Steve Tandy departed Sydney to take up Taylor’s old job as Scotland defence coach, providing the opportunity for Bailey to pull back on the light blue strip of NSW.

Ex-leaguies transitioning to rugby defence roles is a well-worn path trod by the likes of John Muggleton, Les Kiss, Shaun Edwards and Andy Farrell, but Bailey is no stranger to the 15-man game after spending the majority of his time post-retirement coaching in union.

After a league career that saw him play for Australia, NSW, Manly, the Northern Eagles, Cronulla and Wigan, Bailey moved to New York after retiring to live with his American partner in 2012.

He began playing and coaching rugby at the New York Athletic Club, and that led to Bailey being recruited as defence coach for the US national team.

Bailey went to the 2015 World Cup with the Eagles before moving to Hong Kong, where he helped coached the national side for two years.

The last seven years have given Bailey a strong knowledge of rugby and he’s a canny collector of coaching mentors, too.

Bailey has become friends with some of Australia’s best coaching minds, including England coach Eddie Jones, Kiss and new Wallabies’ backs coach Scott Wisemantel.

And it was a relationship with ex-Wallabies coach Michael Cheika that helped him get an interview for his new Waratahs gig.

"It started off with a conversation with Cheik. We met at the 2015 when I was on that campaign, with the USA, two Aussies abroad and we met up,” Bailey said.

"We stayed in touch and he got onto (NSW Rugby general manager) Tim Rapp and there was a bit of an opportunity maybe coming up, and that led to another conversation with Rob (Penney) and Rappy and it went from there.”

Bailey, who has been doing part-time coaching work in the NSW Rugby League pathways system, has been hired for one season with the Waratahs as a defensive consultant, at this stage.

The 39-year-old was known as a skilful ball-player in league but also had a strong defensive reputation, and while he says the Waratahs already have many good defensive structures in place from Tandy’s time, he aims to build on that work.

"I have been very lucky because there is been a lot of very good stuff that’s already been laid down last year, and also in this pre-season as well,” he said.

"It’s more me getting up to speed with what they’ve already got embedded and then adding my little bits and my little touches.”

Bailey says his focus on teaching good tackle technique can help safeguard the Waratahs from the impacts of World Rugby’s crackdown on high contact, which has seen heavy penalties handed down in recent seasons for players who’ve made contact with the head or neck; accidentally or otherwise.

"That’s where my skillset comes in around technique and things like that. Because those days are gone, no-one is going back. The head is out of it. The same thing happened in rugby league,” he said.

"It becomes a big thing but inside organisations, it’s just part of doing business. They’ve changed the rules again, ok, now we need to adapt.”