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Exclusive – Wasps and England Saxons Coach Andy Titterrell: ‘We Showed A Hell Of A Lot Of Character In South Africa’

Being forced to retire due to injury is an issue that professional players are increasingly having to deal with and it was something that faced former England and Lions player Andy Titterrell.

“I retired in March 2014 and then I went straight back into rugby in July time, but it was a difficult time when I retired because clubs were halfway through the season, so I had to put as many feelers out as I possibly could so I could see where avenues might open up. I was fortunate enough to have an opening at Wasps, so I had a small transition but it felt like a few years from finishing playing into getting back into work with coaching.”

Few can say they have achieved as much as Titterrell when it comes to their playing days: a British and Irish Lion, an England player and a Premiership winner with Sale.

Guinness Premiership Final: Sale Sharks v Leicester Tigers

“Winning the Premiership in 2006 was right up there because it was about knuckling down for the whole season, finishing top of the league and then we went on to win the final. We were the first club to do that and we were against the odds to do that as well; on a wet and rainy Twickenham afternoon – particularly against Leicester, a lot of pundits picked them to beat us on that day.”

With rugby being such an important and integral part of Andy’s life, he felt he couldn’t walk away from it when he was sadly forced to stop playing.

“I always wanted to coach when I finished. I had planned to be a strength and conditioner. I got my qualifications, had responsibilities at clubs and I was completing my masters at the time when I got injured and I knew that I wanted to stay close to rugby.

“However, the opportunity as forwards coach came up at Wasps and I grabbed the chance to get back into rugby and start again. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting my teeth into coaching, being part of a team again.

“You’re that close to the action when you’re coaching, to try and think on your feet in games with messages to players, it is a very challenging environment to be in and its results-driven as well. It’s very difficult because once the guys take the field, as a player you can have some kind of direct impact on it: performing your role to the best of your ability, running harder to get to a defensive line, diving on a loose ball to regain possession.

“Now as a coach, you have to give clear messages and information to the players so that they can go out and perform.

“Looking back now I definitely made the right move moving away from strength and conditioning, but having that knowledge and that background puts things in place when I’m planning my sessions. I know what the S and C guys want from the players in terms of loads, intensity, distance covered, time on feet etc; they give us blocks where we can push them hard and really try and get as much intensity out of them as we can in terms of game-relation, so it’s great to have that knowledge. However, I thoroughly enjoy the journey I’ve taken in terms of coaching.”

As Wasps forwards coach, Titterrell has been part of a side that had a fantastic season just – making the Premiership play-offs and the semi-finals of the Champions Cup.

“We had a slow start last season, similar to the season before: losing then winning, then losing then winning, and then the patch we started to get our teeth into was during the Six Nations, Our internationals that were away were thinking about their duties as internationals, but the players that were playing their part up until that point were given opportunities to play on a more regular basis and I think their character absolutely came through.

“We went on a 9 or 10 game winning streak and the players’ attitude at that time was absolutely outstanding, so that put us on course for when guys came back to add to the team again.

“In previous seasons players have returned to clubs with various incentives. We were in a position to compete for European and Premiership recognition. That large chunk of games, I feel that was a really successful period for us. We got some great wins away from home, and our home form was going pretty decently.

“I think the objectives for this season are to try and be consistent enough to be in that top six, to push for top four and once you’re in or around that group it’s everything to play for. I think what with where we finished last year, our objective was top six at that point and ultimately we finished third. I think with the signings that Derek Richardson and Dai Young have made they’ve given us as a team an opportunity to really to push on from where we were last year and to try and be consistently in that top group of performers.”

Titterrell goes on to talk about the individuals who have influenced him the most as he made the transition away from playing into coaching.

“Being involved with England from about 2002 onwards and when I was involved in the pre-World Cup squad in 2003, I was exposed to a lot of Clive Woodward and Andy Robinson and their way of thinking, Dave Aldred in terms of the mindset and Simon Hardy as well. I worked with Simon as my throwing coach for the best part of ten or twelve years, so definitely Simon gave me a process-driven mindset and I guess that’s how I take forward my throwing coaching in terms of when I’m doing that, I try and break everything down for the players and be as detailed as I can.

“As a player I liked to be really detailed, I liked to know what I was doing and why I was doing it. I used to technically work on things to try and improve me as a player, so when I was exposed to that from 2002 onwards with the England camp I loved everything that Woodward put in place: the ownership, the professionalism, leaving no stone unturned, a no excuse culture. Even the simple things like punctuality, correct kit, aspects away from the training field were important because it was a whole package as a player.

“In order for a culture to be accepted it has to be driven from the top. I like to think that I set examples as a player and conducted myself in a professional manner. That same mindset is how I want to coach.”

“I had the privilege to be coached by Neil Back as well: once at Leeds and once at Edinburgh. I’d only ever come across Backy when I’d been involved with England but then when I played against him at Leicester, he took his fierce competiveness and his attention to detail from his playing days into coaching. I like to be highly organised and if you get everything in place and in line then you can start asking questions of the players’ character. Push their limits. You can talk about effort, but that’s one thing you can’t coach. A player has to want to do things, sacrifice nights out, do extra training to improve, watch footage of opposition, invest time.

“Those are a few names that spring to mind in the ways that I thought in terms of accuracy and what I was trying to achieve as a player and that’s kind of drifted into the way I want to coach as well.

“All my experiences previously come from playing so I draw on experiences from past players, how other coaches treated other players, how I was treated as a player and I knew who I responded to and how I was spoken to. I try and have a fair amount of empathy with the players as well, because at the end of the day we all need to pull in the same direction.

“If it means speaking to someone quietly on a one-on-one as opposed to pulling them up as a group in getting the best out of that person I like to think I’d be able to do that, so I draw on my own personality and those that I’ve learnt from around me as well. My philosophy hasn’t really changed, but the way that I manage players and my coaching style I think that will continue to evolve over time, but I’ve had some brilliant people to think from and to take ideas from and the way they conduct themselves in front of players and other coaches, so that’s been a massive help.”

With Wasps’ success England inevitably came knocking and it was the RFU’s Head of Professional Coach Development Kevin Bowring who suggested the Saxons tour to South Africa to Titterrell.

“As English coaches within the Premiership Kevin Bowring comes around the clubs and talks to us a lot individually about coach development, how we’re getting on and what can the RFU do to help improve us as English coaches. I had been speaking to Kevin about what I had been doing at Wasps since I joined and that’s where it all came from,

“Kevin called me up one day and said he’d be very, very keen for me to go on the tour. There wasn’t a lot of consideration from me, to be honest, as a player if I was asked to go on any tour I’d be jumping through hoops to go on it, and the same as a coach. I wanted to experience the international stage, I wanted to experience different coaches, a different environment, different players and how they interact with different coaches and with each other, so when Kevin asked me I couldn’t have been more motivated to go, just as I had been than since when I signed my first professional contract. I was over the moon, so I just couldn’t wait to get started.”

Winning both tests and becoming the first English representative team to win a series in South Africa, Titterrell explains there was so much more to the tour than simply victorious scorelines.

“When we met up our main aims of the tour were to win, to have a performance to be proud of and to enjoy the tour  as well. By enjoy I mean enjoy each other’s company, enjoy what is on offer in terms of the coaching that is available, the players that are around you, the management, the whole experience of touring South Africa. Of course when we wrapped things up on the last day, we achieved all those objectives.

“We got two wins, we got two cracking performances and if anything the players showed a hell of a lot of character . I think that is what international rugby does. When you’re 26 – 8 down teams can have the tendency to crumble and not fight back, whereas I think the character of the players, the character of some of  the senior players, they really led from the front and we clawed ourselves back into it.

“We played to our strengths, and we managed to get ourselves over the line, but it wasn’t anything that the players didn’t deserve when I think of the effort that they put in to training, into the games, and the trust that the management had in those players.”

Although Titterrell is an experienced international player, as a coach this was something completely new to him.

“It’s really different because with club level you’ve literally got 11 months pretty much to knuckle down and get your work done. You’re reviewing 4, 5 or 6 games sometimes on each opposition, you’re trawling through lineouts, different players, different triggers, this that and the other. Whereas with the Saxons we literally met up and had two weeks before we played our first test and then we were straight back into the last one. In terms of the Saxons tour that we’ve just been on, Ali Hepher and ourselves as coaches, we just wanted to make the tour about us and what we could bring to the table.

“We didn’t know which team South Africa would pick, which players would be selected or dropping down from the first team, we weren’t too familiar with a lot of these players, so we went to our strengths. I knew what I wanted to get out of my set piece from a forwards pack. Alan Dickens obviously wanted to put a defensive framework in place and Ali an attacking framework.

“It was very much done quickly, but once we were there, we had to make sure that the team ran consistently with each other, that our detail within certain aspects were as good as they could be so that we could give ourselves an opportunity to go out and win the two tests.

“There’s a lot more that goes into the opposition when you’re with the clubs than when we were with the Saxons. That’s obviously completely different to where the senior England team are because they have Autumn, the Six Nations, they knew who they were going to play and had a fairly good idea what that squad in Australia was going to be like so they probably could have done a little bit more prep on it. Our squad wasn’t mentioned until the last minute, against South African opposition we didn’t know. We decided not to worry about South Africa too much, we decided to concentrate on ourselves and if we do South Africa have to be able to deal with the threats that we pose. I think we handled ourselves very well.”

As a coach, Titterrell has made a lightning-fast start to his career and is already leading his club and his country into some of the most hostile and challenging environments in world rugby. Yet this is no real surprise given his determination, his desire to improve and his dedication to his sport. Retirement for Andy is only the beginning of a new chapter, not the ending of a story.

Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena

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Author: The PA Team

This article was written by a member of The PA Team.