The Fear Factor: Q&A with Gordon coach Lachie Fear

Photo: SPA Images

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Looking at this year’s top six teams you can make a pretty decent list of rep players – and Wallabies in particular – that have featured for them across the season, helping them towards the finals and lighting up the competition along the way. From the current Wallaby squad, the names of Waugh, Mumm, Burgess, Mitchell, Chisholm, Smith, Palu, Alexander, Robinson, Turner and Cowan, have all turned out for their respective clubs. Add to that list the names of Kepu, Hoiles, Valentine, Dunning and Sheehan, all Wallaby representatives as well, and you can appreciate the difference that guys with that much talent and experience bring to the table.

All of which make the achievements of Gordon head coach Lachie Fear all the more remarkable. For while the other five finalists are well represented on those lists, the boys from Chatswood are an impressive anomaly. A 3rd place regular season finish this time round comes close on the heels of last year’s hugely impressive 2nd, and it was only a very late rally from a formidable Randwick side in the Preliminary Final that prevented them from a place in the Grand Final. All of this achieved with not one Wallaby donning the Highlander shirt.

Given the depth of quality that their high-flying rivals have been able to call on at various times this year, I find their success to be not only unheralded, but really rather refreshing. What’s more, similar to West Harbour throughout last year and at times during this season, not only are they punching above their weight, they’ve been doing it with some panache.

At times Gordon can be frustrating, ill-disciplined, and prone to lapses of concentration. But when they’re switched on, boy are they on, and they produce some of the most entertaining and attacking rugby seen in the Shute Shield. For anyone who was lucky enough to see their match-winning try at TG Millner a few weeks ago, you’ll understand where I’m coming from.

Fear is an interesting character. Talk to him and his enthusiasm for the game of rugby, his knowledge, his vision for the future, and his sheer passion, can you lead you into many a fruitful and comprehensive discussion on a multitude of topics. A product of Newington College, he took his first steps towards a promising career in the front row at Eastern Suburbs, with two years apiece with the Australian under 19’s and then 21’s an indication of his talent.

After three years at Woollahra he moved to Northern Suburbs, where he played alongside Ben Darwin while a certain Al Baxter was also packing down in Colts. Unfortunately, injuries wreaked havoc with his progress, and after managing a mere three appearances in two years, he made the tough decision to hang up his boots at just 20 years of age. All he’d ever wanted to do was play for the Wallabies and, as he admits himself, after putting his heart and soul into rugby and having it taken away from him, he went off the rails and lost himself for a while.

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Early days up front: Packing down for Easts Colts against Eastwood in 1995 – Photo: SPA Images

Eventually he channelled himself back into sport through surfboat rowing, and he acknowledges that the level of trust involved in this dangerous sport helped shape some of his ideals in rugby.

“It’s the classic example of team work,” he explains. “You can’t do anything unless anyone else does it. You can’t function by yourself, you’ve got to work together.” Fear also flirted for a year with boxing – “Just to test myself” – and ended up walking off with NSW State titles in the Super heavyweight division. This achievement was made a whole lot easier by the fact that nobody would actually fight him, which may go some way to explaining his “off the rails” admission!

During that time he also made the decision to go to University and study sports science, and as a result of that the lure of the game he loves proved too strong, and he decided to try his hand at coaching. Going back to Eastern Suburbs, a place where he says his heart will always be, he coached 1sts Colts for three years, impressing enough to get an invitation to join the coaching staff at Warringah.

Working for two years as assistant to John Briggs and Mark Holmes, he got his first taste of success when the Rats lifted the Shute Shield in 2005. Then the opportunity he had been waiting for, to test himself as a head coach, arrived on his doorstep and he just couldn’t say no.

“I was lucky enough to be selected to come to Gordon,” he says. “They took a real chance on me, and it was a great opportunity to see if I could hack it at this level as a full-time head coach. Four years down the track, I’m really glad that I made that decision and that Gordon gave me that opportunity as well.”

I caught up with Lachie prior to the finals series in the impressive surroundings of the Gordon club in Chatswood, to talk about his time with the Highlanders, their progress under his tutelage, and his coaching mantra. As always, it was an illuminating chat…

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You’re the youngest coach in the Shute Shield but you’ve had a fair amount of success in a relatively short period of time. Can you give us a brief resume of your achievements so far?

“In 2005 while I was at Warringah, the club competition was in two parts and the Shute Shield was just 11 games straight out. We won all 11 and then beat Sydney Uni in the final to lift the trophy. In 2007 I was assistant coach at the Central Coast Rays with John McKee as the head coach and Darren Coleman (now the Academy coach at the Brumbies) as the other assistant. I learned a lot from John, he was very good at delegating and giving guys responsibilities. It wasn’t one bloke doing everything, there were three guys really contributing to that campaign, and we also had a senior playing group that was very strong as well. I honestly believe that that will still be regarded as the best rugby this country has ever seen at that level.”

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Fear was part of the coaching set-up that took the Rats to Shute Shield victory in 2005 – Photo: SPA Images

And you’ve managed to sustain that success as a head coach at the Highlanders?

“Yes, in 2007 we had our first taste of victory at the Kiama Sevens, and it was really that triumph that gave us some momentum and left everyone at the club feeling ‘We can actually win something’. We won that tournament at Warringah when I was there as well so I’m happy to say I’ve now won it at two different clubs. It’s a great tournament and it’s a perfect pre-season workout. Also that year we won the Toohey’s New/Shute Shield Plate, which was a play-off for seventh spot, so effectively we were the best of the rest. We beat Manly who were favourites to win, and they had some very good players including Peter Hewat. Although it wasn’t a Grand Final it was a great achievement, and we were very happy to celebrate that win.

“We then won the Trevor Allan Cup, which was created after the short-lived ARC was instigated. Trevor Allan was a Gordon legend, a dual international who captained and coached the Wallabies and had an outstanding record as a player. So for NSWRU to name the trophy the Trevor Allan Cup, and then for Gordon to win it and for it to never be played ever again, is fantastic!

“The year before I joined the club, we were second last in the competition. We progressed ever so slightly in my first year and again in the second year, and in the last two years we’ve come second in the Club Championship and made the finals. That’s a big turnaround, and both the club and myself are very proud of that achievement. It’s been great to be involved in developing a club rather than just coming in when it was already at the top.”

While the success you’ve had in terms of trophies and your improved position on the ladder are great signs of progress, you can’t always measure purely by results. What specific improvements do you think you’ve achieved in your time at Gordon?

“In my first year here I had 142 players across the four grades, but during that season we forfeited two 4th Grade games, which had never happened before at the club. We had too many players but none that wanted to stick around. We didn’t win a game in 3rd or 4th Grade, won once in 2nd Grade, and something like six in 1st Grade. To progress from there we learnt that you’ve got to recruit well, and you’ve got to communicate with your players. You’ve got to target the needs of your club rather than simply getting players in, and I believe we still need to look at that. We try and get players sometimes, rather than get the key positions that we need.

“One of the keys to getting those specific players is looking after your current crop. The big statement that I made early on was that I wanted to knock off the top and deepen the bottom, meaning let’s get guys in that we can bring through the grades and eventually overtake those at the top. Having made that comment the guys who were at the top all left the club, which really hurt our lower grades. You really need them to put back in at the bottom and nurse some of the players coming through. Looking after those guys and integrating them back into the club in some way is probably the big success that we’ve had the over last two years. People are sticking around a little longer than they used to, or people are coming back.”

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Dave Harvey has been a fulcrum of Fear’s impressive Gordon outfit – Photo: SPA Images

You’ve had to blood a lot of young players early because of the loss of those old heads. And while that was difficult to begin with, you are now starting to see some benefits with guys like Dave Harvey and Mark Preston who’ve played 100 club games and are still in their mid-20’s. That’s got to be a positive looking ahead?

“Well, they haven’t reached their peak yet for sure. We have brought guys in really early and it would’ve been great for them to have been guided a bit more in those early stages. Having said that, all of them that have come in have deserved to. Mark Preston had played 40 1st Grade games before I came here and he was 20 when I arrived, so he’d already had two and half seasons in 1st Grade. We’re now two to three years down the track and we’re still not as experienced as we’d like to be, which is no fault of anyone’s. It’s just the lack of opportunity for them to rub shoulders with any high profile players in their own team, not against them. They need to spend quality time playing alongside top players.

“If you put top players around guys that are good club rugby players, it makes a team pretty strong. Gordon just hasn’t had that over the last five or six years and that’s been a big issue. We’ve put a structure in place where we can maintain good players, and also add good players to enable us to keep doing what we’ve been doing. But for us to kick on to the next level, we need some of those top level players here. You can’t just develop those players all the time, you do need to get them in from somewhere sometimes. The reality is we’ve got a lot of good players but we need a couple of those exceptional ones.”

Especially when it comes to sudden death finals footy, you need those experienced heads on talented shoulders to lead the way when the going gets tough?

“That is the difference. We’ve got the underdog status here at this club and that’s a good thing to have, but it’s the status that we’re forced into. I’d say around 85-90% of our players are under the age of 25 and most of those guys would’ve played 60 to 70 1st Grade games. If you make the competition that they play in the absolute best quality it can be, that’d be 60-70 top class 1st Grade games that guys who aren’t professional rugby players are playing, and that increases the depth of Australian rugby instantly. At the moment, if you play 20 games a year I guess there’s a few of them that aren’t of the quality that you would want.”

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Laying down the law at half-time against Manly last month – Photo: SPA Images

I particularly enjoy watching Gordon play. Is that attacking intent and desire to stretch the field your mantra as a coach, or have you adapted the style of play to suit the players at your disposal?

“Definitely a bit of both. We’ve tried to create a philosophy of play that gives us options for both styles of rugby, whether we want to play hard and direct, or move it wide and let the ball fly a bit. Our mantra is not ‘We must go wide!’, it’s that we want to create opportunities to exploit holes in the opposition, and at any one time we want to have both the wide and narrow options available.

“Our tendency was to go wide, so we’ve worked hard this year to try and achieve both, and myself and assistant coaches Dave Dinning and Ross Hopkins will look back and say that we’re really happy with the results we’ve got in trying to combine the two styles of football. I’ve got a way that I want to play but I’m not strict on it, because you can’t make apples into oranges. We’ve got somebody like Billy Ratu who is far better out wide than he is in close, so the way I want to play is adapted to the players within that framework.

“I guess the evolution of Gordon rugby while I’ve been here is to feel that we’ve enjoyed the game. To get some success out of it early on we had to score points and we had to score tries. Even if we lost 40-20 but scored three or four tries, at least there was some kind of enjoyment from the game. After that we could focus on our defence, but we still had to keep the attack organised. Now, because teams have worked us out a bit, we have to work harder on attack to make sure that we still score points.

“Tries are more important to us than goals, but in saying that we’ve got someone like Dave Harvey that consistently kicks goals and penalties, as well as being a vital cog in us being able to play wide, attacking football. He provides us the option that when it’s not working we can go back to another style and play a kicking game. There needs to be a balance, because you do need to back yourself sometimes to score points by crossing the line rather than just kicking goals. We want to win games so let’s make sure we do that first. But I still believe that to beat Sydney Uni or Randwick, who score at least two or three tries in a game, you’re going to have to score them too.”

How important a role do your assistant coaches play – who has the final say regarding the game plan, and how it is implemented?

“I’ve gone through a few stages in how I coach, but the way I approach it now is that my opinion is the right one until someone convinces me otherwise, and I’m very flexible with that. If one of my assistant coaches comes up and says ‘I really think we should be doing this’, and he does a good job of explaining how and why and convinces me that it’s an improvement, then I’m up for that and I’m happy to be wrong because it means that we’re getting better.

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Fear works well with assistant coach Dave Dinning – Photo: SPA Images

“For the last three years I’ve had Dave Dinning as my assistant coach, and he and I work extremely well together. We’re a very good combination and I wouldn’t want to be doing this job without him around for sure. He’s got a good work ethic, he’s a good communicator, and he deals with the players in a different way to me, which is critical. He gets a lot of leeway in how the backs play, but I might advise that I’d like to see this or that happen more. I set the game plan and he sets the starter plays in the way in which the backs play around that game plan. That’s been my biggest learning process this year, knowing when to step back sometimes.”

Delegation?

“Exactly, it’s such a critical thing. I believe that I’m a head coach, so I don’t want to be seen as a units or a skills or a positional coach. I’m the guy dealing with the up’s and downs of a season, how to get us out of troughs, or how to proceed when we’re going well. I focus in on those areas, and it’s a good balanced structure at the moment.

“At the end of last year I was talking to a lot of the players about keeping them at the club, which included showing them the reduced pay structure, and I was really honoured to hear them say that the reason they’re here is because of the coaching structure. I have to say that this is the best group I’ve worked with in terms of how we interact, and that’s not just 1st or 2nd Grade, that’s all of the grades. We have a meeting every Monday and every Friday and everyone’s there – not for their own particular team  – but for the benefit of the other players and the club, which is terrific. I’ve been at Easts, Norths, Warringah and now Gordon, and this is the best that it’s ever been.”

Are you currently undertaking a three-to-five year plan to take this club to where you think it should be, or as far as you think you can take it?

“Good question – no we’re not. We’ve had a plan throughout my time here but my position at this club has always been on a yearly contract basis, so it’s very difficult to look too far ahead. I’d love to be in a situation where I can say ‘This is where we want to be, this is the path we are going to take, this is the time we’re going to take to do it, and this is how we’re going to do it’, but it’s just the circumstances we are in. We do have an holistic approach however. We recently put three guys in 1st Grade against Penrith who were straight out of Colts, and for no other reason than to give them some experience for next year, so that’s an example of looking at the big picture.

“I do believe that the region that Gordon is in – the upper north shore – is the heartland of Australian rugby. I know that Sydney Uni’s the birthplace, I know that the Western Suburbs and Hills District is the growth area, but I have to say that the people that play rugby union, that go and support the Waratahs or Brumbies, that go to test matches – the high majority of them come from the upper north shore. If we had the ability to get a four-five year plan on a bigger scale, getting this club to be a major attraction for all the young kids to want to play 1st Grade rugby at Gordon and progress to the Waratahs and then on to the Wallabies, it would be awesome. It would be the ideal situation.”

Is that a possibility or merely a pipe dream, and would that be a factor in you staying here for longer?

“I think it’s possible and I know the club thinks that too, it just comes down to the economics. It’s also very hard to plan five years ahead when you don’t know how the competition is going to run year-in, year-out. You don’t know who’s going to be in it, and you don’t know how it’s going to be structured. We’ve got a pretty clear understanding of what the Super 15 is going to be in 2011, so what are we going to do at the next level below that? Let’s start planning for it and structuring ourselves to be moving forward, rather than standing still, which in essence, is going backwards.”

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Original version published by clubrugby.com.au on September 18th, 2009

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