BlogSpotRugby guest writer, Chris Bjornestad, caught up with Hamilton’s head coach, Anton Moolman and chatted about all things rugby, from Moolman’s former playing days, to what he looks for when recruiting new players for the club, to the need for players to keep intellectually stimulated.

Anton Moolman is a former club and provincial player with Boland,
Western Province, Villager and Hamilton. Moolman has been involved in
various coaching capacities with school boy rugby, club, WP U21s, WP
Sevens and the Springbok U16s.

This is what went down:

  • Chris Bjornestad: What was it like for Hamilton’s players to play a Super Rugby curtain raiser at ABSA Stadium in Durban in early April?
  • Anton Moolman: It’s fantastic for any South African club to play on a bigger stage. Playing at ABSA Stadium was a great opportunity for our players to showcase their talents. In the end Hamilton’s won 19-16 against the Varsity College Old Boys. For some of our players, it was their first experience playing in a big stadium; for others it is likely their last match playing at such a venue for Hamilton. So I think it was special for everyone.
  • CB: Hamilton attended the Melrose Sevens in Scotland this year to defend its title. The boys lost a closely contested final. What does this tournament mean to the club?
  • AM: Melrose is unique and special in a lot of ways. Melrose Sevens is the oldest tournament of its kind in the world. There are only two foreign teams invited each year. For Hammies to be invited for a second year is a great honour.

It’s difficult to describe the atmosphere at Greenyards where the tournament takes place. In a town of 2,000 people, there are about 15,000 in attendance at the grounds. Some years back, I had the pleasure of meeting legendary BBC rugby announcer, Bill McLaren, when I was there as a player several years ago. There’s also real pressure on the players to perform and win. It’s a sudden death format so if you lose your first game it’s over – imagine travelling thousands of kilometres to potentially play 14 minutes of rugby.

The tournament is also special because the players are hosted by local families. Hamilton’s players who attended last year stayed with the same Scottish families and have got to know them. This is part of what makes rugby so special.

Traditionally only clubs have been invited, but this year Waikato from New Zealand attended. Hammies managed a hard fought 17-7 semi-final victory before losing to Melrose in the finals. Beating a top New Zealand pro side is no easy feat.

It’s also been a great opportunity to introduce Hamilton’s brand of rugby on an international stage, particularly because of the BBC’s coverage.

  • CB: What were your impressions of the 1st team’s victories in the first two matches against Helderberg and UCT?
  • AM: I was generally pleased with the results, but we have a lot more growing to do as a team. The newer players, who may have been a bit slow to adjust in the pre-season, are settling in well now to our structures and systems. Beating the 2011 Varsity Cup winners was never going to be easy, but we rose to the occasion. Helderberg also threw the kitchen sink at us but we kept our composure.
  • CB: Do you think that Hamilton and top WP Super League A clubs could compete favourably in the Vodacom Cup?
  • AM: I have no doubt at all that Hamilton could compete at this level. We definitely could compete with and win against teams in the lower half of the competition. And Hamilton is certainly not the only side in the WP Super League A that could do well against Vodacom Cup sides.

In many ways, the Vodacom Cup is a growing tool for U21s to later play Currie Cup level. Hamilton has a number of senior players who have previously competed at Currie Cup level or professionally in Europe. So we’d bring a lot of experience that some of their teams would not have.

  • CB: As Head Coach, what kind of players do you look for when recruiting new blood?
  • AM: I think it’s important to look at the person before the player. I look for certain positive qualities in an individual, not just his skill and experience. Honesty and integrity are very important attributes for all Hamilton’s players. The coaching staff prefer doing in-person interviews with possible recruits so we can get a sense of what kind of people they are.

We also bring in new players to the club who can get our veteran players out of their comfort zone and inject some intensity. For example, Hamilton’s contracted two lock forwards for 2011 who have created a lot more fire in the pack. Because of their strong scrummaging, they are making our front row more effective and enthusiastic. We don’t bring in or resign new players who are afraid to compete for their positions.

  • CB: You were a provincial player before picking up a whistle. How has rugby changed in South Africa since you played?
  • AM: Obviously the players today are training more professionally than was the case in my day. We now have players training 9 to 5 most days of the week, whereas we used to only train in the evenings.

I also believe that the club game was more valued when I played in terms of identifying talent for provincial and national level rugby. I remember how exciting it was for me and other club players to read our names in the Cape Times on a Monday night. Players who were playing well in the Western Province club league were selected to play against the WP A team.

I still believe that top club players are capable of playing at higher levels in this country, but they do not always get a look because they are not playing provincial age-grade rugby or senior rugby.

Nowadays, we also hear a lot about top players burning out in South Africa. In many cases, I don’t think this is due to playing too much rugby because top players are conditioned to play regularly and over long seasons.

I think we lose a lot of players because of a lack of intellectual stimulation. Many players focus on rugby and nothing else. When I played provincially I think players were more well-rounded, and had other things going on in their lives.

We tend to think that South African players go overseas simply because of the lure of big money. While this is a consideration, they also go to broaden their horizons and take up other interests than rugby.

For Hamilton’s players who are only focusing on rugby with no 9 to 5 job, I would like to see them take courses and work at least a few days a week.

  • CB: Hamilton has an impressive group of senior coaches from the 1sts to the 4ths. Do you believe this will make a difference in our 2011 campaign?
  • AM: It is already making a huge difference in the players’ skill development, performances and overall attitude. We’ve got a large number of players who want and deserve strong coaching. We’ve got Frikkie Coetzer who was the 2nd Team Assistant Coach last year when they won the WP Super League division. He is now the 2nd Team Head Coach and doing some excellent things with his players. His Forwards Coach, Niekkie Viljoen, played great rugby for Hamilton’s and professionally in Europe, and is quickly developing into a very effective coach.

In the 3rds, we have Darin and Mark Viljoen, and Keith Gregory who are very passionate and serious about the game. There’s also Robert Venter and Stanley Smith who are coaching the 4ths. In many ways, the work that the 3rd and 4th team coaches are doing is more challenging than my job because their players are not contracted. That means they are not obligated to pitch up for training and matches, so the coaches are under pressure to keep them motivated and stimulated.

  • CB: There is often the feeling in competitive clubs such as Hamilton that players who are not initially selected for the 1sts and 2nds will not stand a chance at playing up for the rest of the season. What are your thoughts on this?
  • AM: WP Super League club rugby has changed in recent years. We now have both contracted players and players who participate because of the love of the game. The younger players in particular who are with the 3rds and 4ths are there to develop with the possibility that they will play up in the years to come. Hamilton’s also has coaches who are eager to see their players play up whenever an opportunity presents itself. The 3rd and 4th team coaches take pride in preparing their players for higher level rugby.

Against Helderberg we lost two loose forwards to injuries and then brought up 2nd team replacements. Injuries happen in an instance, which means that some players in lower sides will get their chances to play up.

I actually watch 3rd team matches more closely than 2nds because I have a 2nd team match on video to watch. The coaching staff is monitoring the performances of lower sides.

At the end of the day, some players will be disappointed not to play in their position and team of choice. But we are doing our best.

  • CB: What will it take for Hamilton to regain its WP Super League A and national club titles in 2011?
  • AM: Winning, continuity and a strong work ethic. When I talk about continuity I mean in selections, game plan and a maintaining a healthy player base.

The 2010 season was similar to 2009 when Hamilton’s won the WP Super League A and national championships in terms of our level of play. I don’t think that we saw significant enough improvements last season. But this year, we are elevating to and striving for a higher standard of rugby, and I’ve already seen some evidence of this in our pre-season and first two Super League matches.

  • CB: What is your short and long-term vision for Hamilton and the leagues in which we compete?
  • AM: I always take a game-by-game approach and strive to put the strongest team possible on the field. Our objectives are to win the WP Super League A title first, and then the national club title, but we won’t get ahead of ourselves in terms of preparation. Bonus points are incredibly important so securing as many as we can in winning efforts are key.

But results are just part of the equation. We need to keep applying and building pressure, and ensure that we are improving on a continuous basis. I can tell you that if we are playing the same level of rugby at the end of the season as we are playing now – even if we are winning – then I will not be satisfied.

My vision for the leagues in which we compete is to eventually have the clubs be the footprint for Western Province and Currie Cup rugby, not the Vodacom Cup. Personally, I’d like to see the Vodacom Cup done away with and have these players take part in club rugby. There are a lot of provincial players who go through their entire careers without playing club rugby. I think that is a shame.

A few years back when the Hurricanes were training at Hamilton before a Super Rugby match, one of the players asked me how many of Hamilton’s players played for Western Province. I explained that it was rare these days to have club players represent their provinces. He looked quite surprised by this and explained that in New Zealand all top rugby players played club rugby at one time or another.

I’d like to see a better semi-professional structure with sponsorships for all top clubs in the country. Nationally, we need a Varsity-Cup style club competition that will make people sit up and take notice. That means televised matches, aggressive marketing, support from high profile sponsors, etc.

For those people who doubt that club rugby is worthy of such attention, I would suggest that they attend a Super League match in Cape Town. There is real quality rugby being played.

  • CB: Has your thinking about how the game should be played, and approach to coaching, changed at all since you first took over as Head Coach? What have you learnt during your time as Hamilton’s man in charge?
  • AM: I’ve never had a problem staying current with the technical side of the game. The game keeps evolving and my coaching staff does its best to adapt when necessary. I think my thinking has changed most when it comes to player management. I do my best to understand each player’s personality and look for ways to bring out the best in him.

I take pride in treating all players the same on the field. But off the field it’s important to find out what makes each player tick. It’s important to understand and assist in the emotional intelligence of my players.

If you look at the most successful coaches in the world – Jake White, Graham Henry, Clive Woodward or Rod Macqueen – they all had very good people skills. They know how to understand, communicate with and organise their players. I believe that I’ve made some progress in that respect.

  • CB: Last year, 2nd Team Head Coach, Hein Kriek, and his team won the division. In 2011, Hein was appointed 1st Team Forwards Coach. What does he bring to the table?
  • AM: Hein was the first team forwards coach when Hamilton won the provincial and national club championships two years ago. The club made a big decision to ask Hein to become Head Coach of the 2nd Team last year. He was highly successful in this position and led his team to win the league.

I can see how much Hein has developed and improved as a coach from this experience. He has a great work ethic, is passionate and has a very good grasp of technical areas of the game. He’s also involved in coaching at school and WP U16 level, which makes him even more effective.

I think one of his biggest assets is his willingness to listen to the views of senior players. This is an underestimated quality in coaching. A good coach, especially at this level, can’t be a dictator and would be a fool not to take into account the vast experience of his players.

We also work well together which is crucial to having a cohesive coaching staff.

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