Justin Fitzpatrick’s time in rugby has seen him travel all over the world. Taking in rugby across Europe with London Irish, Ulster and Castres during his playing days, as well as touring the globe as he amassed his 26 Ireland caps, Fitzpatrick recently took the decision to cross the Atlantic to take up the Director of Rugby position with US club Seattle Saracens.
“I was looking for a change to be honest with you, both professionally and personally. The opportunity came through one of my old team mates Kevin Flynn who I had played at London Irish with. He had emigrated out to the States and is now the President of Seattle Saracens. The club were in the market for a coach and they have been and continue to be building something very exciting over here, it just fitted. I haven’t looked back; it’s been a great experience for me.”
Since Fitzpatrick took on the position in July 2013, he has guided the club into the top tier of domestic rugby in the region: the Canadian Direct Insurance Premier League. Given Seattle’s geographical proximity to Canada, it made sense for the club to play against Canada’s top teams.
“There are more challenges to being a rugby player on this side of the Atlantic than perhaps we’re used to at home in terms of distance and in terms of the sacrifices that need to be made to be a top-level athlete here.”
Sacrifice, dedication and determination are at the centre of Fitzpatrick’s rugby philosophy. As a player he made 156 appearances for Ulster – the most for a forward in the club’s history. His commitment to the province saw him become part of the first Irish side to win the European Cup against French club Colomiers back in 1999.
When asked about what Ulster means to him, Fitzpatrick spoke from the heart: “You’ve got such a passionate people; the team captures the people’s imagination. There is such a fabulous stadium in Ravenhill, now the Kingspan, people just love rugby in Ulster and they love the team and the team responds to that, and the responsibility that it presents. During game week the players understand what a responsibility it is to represent the crowd and the Ulster people.”
As well as his two stints at Ulster, Fitzpatrick emerged as one of the leading props in the game at London Irish – a club that is still very important to him and one that he will be watching closely as they begin life in the Championship, the second tier of English professional rugby.
“I still follow London Irish and consider it my club. I’m reasonably confident about them getting promoted this season. The Championship is a tough, tough league; there are a lot of potholes along the way and some very difficult places to go to, so I think it’s going to be an interesting twelve months for the club and I wish them well.”
One reason that makes Fitzpatrick feel confident is the return of former player and coach Brendan Venter to the club – a man who helped mould English and European champions Saracens into the team they are now.
“Brendan was there in my last season at London Irish. I have a lot of time and respect for him, as a man, a player and a coach. I think that’s an inspired choice by Bob Casey and the board and I think Brendan is an ultra competitor. I think he will add great value and leadership to the group. I feel a hell of a lot more confident about the direction of the club now that he’s back involved.”
As his playing days came to an end, sadly curtailed by injury, Fitzpatrick was already very well placed to move into coaching, something that he has always had a passion for.
“It was always something that I had an interest in. I did my first coaching course at seventeen believe it or not: bits and pieces, sessions here and there, all along my playing career.
“As I was getting older, in the last five or six years of playing, I started getting more involved with schools, u20s and junior teams.
“In my final years of playing I was very lucky and well facilitated at Ulster under the then CEO Michael Reid, Director of Rugby David Humphreys and Ulster coaches Matt Williams and Brian McLaughlin who were the coaches in my final few years of playing at Ulster. This allowed me, as I was winding down playing, to focus on the next step in my career and I am very grateful for that.
“Next I moved into coaching what was my club at the time, Dungannon. It was a great experience and a great learning curve for me.”
But what drives Fitzpatrick as a coach?
“The best things are about seeing those elements that you focused on in training: those skills, techniques and the graft, seeing those getting executed on a weekend, seeing that behavioural change in a player. That’s really rewarding, all that coming together.
“It’s sometimes taken for granted that when you’ve played at a level yourself how easy it can be to pick things up, but when you’re there actually coaching it, you see the work and effort that goes into it from the other side of it and when the players pick it up that’s very rewarding.”
Besides an influx of both coaching and playing talent, the growth of Seattle as a team has been supported by the club becoming a part of English club Saracens’ ‘Global Network’ – a relationship which has seen the team once known as Seattle-Old Puget Sound Beach rebranded and working closely with the Barnet-based English champions.
“There’s a lot to gain both ways: we get this residual glow of having this bigger brother who is the European and English Premiership champion, which has got a very good structure and good culture about the club which has always impressed me.
“From our point of view, we open up the world’s biggest market in America, so it gives Saracens a foot in the USA. Other people are looking at the US with the Pro 12. There’s a lot of interest and excitement about how rugby can grow and develop here. The USA has the professional sport know-how and the athletes so it is a very exciting time to be involved in rugby here.”
The former Ireland international has also worked previously with the United States’ test team and was part of the backroom staff that guided the US Eagles to the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Although a fantastic opportunity for Fitzpatrick as a developing coach, there were problems to face that other countries do not have to deal with.
“You don’t grasp the challenges of working in American rugby until you get here. North America is such a huge, huge place. You’ve got six or seven hour flights from one coast to the other, to go to any of the major cities from each other outside of that north-east corridor when you’re getting on a plane, for the national team to assemble for a training camp someone is travelling all day. It doesn’t matter where you have it in the country.
“You compare that to England, Ireland and France that’s not the case. That has its own unique challenges: there’s a cost element to it, there’s a time element, there’s a logistic element.”
“Compared to the traditional ‘founding fathers’ of international rugby, we’re still at the embryonic stage here and there’s a lot of good work that’s been happening in the last decade to kick things on, but it’s still at an early age in terms of business and playing.
“However, things are changing here. I toured America with Ireland in 2000 and we played in a little municipal park in front of two or three thousand people.
“In 2015 the USA were up in Soldier Field in Chicago – one of the most iconic stadiums in the USA if not the world – in front of 67,000 people and we’re playing against the world champions the All Blacks. That is a huge turnaround in 15 years.”
“People are falling in love with the game. I think the Olympics is going to help that no end. I hope the men’s and women’s sevens sides can put on a show and they’ve definitely come a long way in a short period of time to put themselves in a good position to do that. I think that’s going to have a positive effect on growing the role of the game in the wider public’s consciousness.”
The enthusiasm and the sincere sense of pride Fitzpatrick has in not only his team Seattle but in rugby across the United States is infectious and with coaches of his calibre helping to support the growth of rugby throughout the nation, the great American journey is speedily heading towards an exciting destination.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena