In a country which has so little history in rugby, it seems right that Hungary should have someone leading them off the field who comes from a nation whose past is so deeply steeped in the sport.
Richie Williams, born and bred in Wales, has recently been appointed Hungary Rugby’s High Performance Director, overseeing the development of its fifteens and sevens sides.
His coaching career so far has certainly been cosmopolitan, as he explains in an exclusive chat with Pundit Arena.
“I played for Aberavon and Maesteg in Division One in Wales. I then got my teaching qualification, moved up to England in 2002 and played for a National Two team called Chinnor, Oxfordshire. Towards the end of my playing career I started coaching and firstly I was the backs coach at Chinnor, then Director of Rugby at Oxford Brookes University, and from there I coached over in Belgium; I was a full-time Director of Rugby at Antwerp Rugby Club which played in Division One.
“I was offered a role in the national team in Belgium, so I coached the national sevens team and worked alongside some of the national team staff to develop them as coaches. From that I moved back to the UK and was offered an England Counties U20s job: I was assistant coach for one season when we played two test matches against Georgia and for the past three seasons I’ve been head coach there.
“I took over as head coach at National 3 team, Amersham and Chiltern. Last year we gained promotion to the league and were the highest scoring team in the UK. I was also a PE teacher at Caldicott Preparatory School whose 1st team won the Rosslyn Park 7’s and were unbeaten for the whole season.”
Throughout his career so far Williams has worked with players of a certain ability but who have the potential to go much further, embodied in the crucial role that the England Counties team play to provide opportunities for players in the lower leagues of English domestic rugby to represent their country.
— Richie Williams (@RichieWills10) June 8, 2016
In Belgium he believes he had a challenge which was similar in nature to the task that he faces in nurturing not only individual players in Hungary but the whole game itself. He describes his job as being a ‘blank canvas’.
“The experience in Belgium has shaped me as a coach, going to a country not too dissimilar to Hungary, where rugby is not the main sport, but going across to a country where I’ve been able to improve my communication skills, so I’ve had to possibly simplify things for all players so they understand what their aims and objectives are. But I think it’s developed my coaching philosophy and my framework, and the experiences I’ve had with England Counties and the national team in Belgium have given me a good platform to work with another national side in Hungary.”
Williams originally began working with the central European state when he toured the country with England Counties back in 2014 and aided them on a consultancy basis, providing coach education and development across the nation.
“I was quite impressed with the attitudes of the players, they had quite a high ambition of where they wanted to be long term as a governing body, so it started there.
“The governing body has a good strategic plan which looks in-depth at the sevens programme and also the fifteens, but similarly looking to improve their current club structure, so there’s huge potential. As with any small rugby playing country, I think culturally it’s going to be a big challenge to try and get more people playing the game.
“It’s about trying to educate people in Hungary about the qualities and the good things that rugby can bring and trying to get something a little more formal into schools, because at the moment there’s only a small percentage of schools in Hungary that have rugby on their curriculums.”
However, Williams is confident that there is enough scope for improvement within the players that are already established in the country to take the national team much further.
“Rugby hasn’t been in Hungary for very long. It’s still in its infancy, but the players I’ve worked with are natural athletes. They’ve played a lot of team sports, a lot of ball sports when they were in school; for instance, there are a lot of handball players within Hungary, so there are a lot of skills that are transferable from across different sports. The players are quite aggressive, quite physical. Therefore, it’s really about fine tuning their tactical and their technical understanding of the game. Their natural ability, both physically and athletically, is at a pretty high level already.”
— Richie Williams (@RichieWills10) August 6, 2016
Clarity of purpose is paramount to Williams, and he explains his objectives for the short, medium and long term.
“In the sevens we played in Rugby Europe’s Men’s Conference 1 tournament in Bulgaria two months ago and finished third in that tournament, so we just missed out on promotion to the Men’s Trophy. Next season the short-term goal is to finish in the top two in that tournament and get promoted and get ourselves back into the top division.
“Underneath that there is the national U18s, U17s and U16s, so there’s a pathway there at the moment and there’s quite a good transition between those teams. The senior team have a number of U18 players that are playing within the squad, so I think there’s a good production line at the moment.
“With the fifteens, the national team got relegated last year in June from the European Nations Cup Division 2B into Conference 2, so this coming season we’re playing against Denmark, Norway, Estonia and Finland. What we want to do is develop a better culture within the fifteens game in Hungary and ultimately we want to play at a higher level.
— Richie Williams (@RichieWills10) April 15, 2016
“This season it will be about trying to work with and establish quite a young playing squad with a long-term aim of getting them promoted up into the upper divisions.
“The governing body in Hungary has a long-term aim to try and qualify for a World Cup. We’re a long way from that, but there are strategies in place to help with the governance and administration side of things over the next few seasons.
“You’ll soon see some of the 16, 17 and 18 players playing at a really high level. In the short term, we’re trying to get a little bit of stability in both the sevens and the fifteens and working with the current squad, as well as trying to increase the number of people playing in Hungary, and getting ourselves promoted into higher leagues to play against more established and recognised rugby countries.”
Williams has already begun the groundwork with his fellow coaches and staff to make improvements to the playing quality within the national set up and he emphasises how important this is for empowering players right across Hungary.
“The challenge in training is to put players in charge of the decision-making process and try to replicate game scenarios. In the short-term that has been pretty successful and there are already signs that the players are learning quickly. We’re embedding a culture of self-improvement and providing them with individual goals that they’re going to work on, so that sort of culture manifests itself best in the national team. Hopefully that’ll filter down into the club teams in Hungary and more importantly the club coaches. It’s a massive project.”
— HungaryRugby (@RugbyHungary) March 29, 2016
Pivotally, Budapest is one of the shortlisted cities to host the 2024 Olympics and that could be of colossal importance to nurturing a minor sport like rugby in Hungary. “The players are excited now after watching the Olympics with the sevens game going global and the main television channel in Hungary broadcasting the final from Rio, so that’s a step in the right direction.
“If we can grow the game in Hungary from the bottom level up, then long-term those players will filter into the clubs and further on, they’ll filter into the national team set-up, so it’s exciting.”
With a mixture of Welsh flair, tactical nous and experience combining with the physical and athletic properties of Hungary’s people, it’s a cultural alliance that might just be the making of the team as a stronger force in Europe.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena
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