Life of Brian: Q & A with departing Eastwood coach Billy Melrose

Photo: SPA Images

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The match of the day in this weekend’s Shute Shield round eleven takes place at TG Millner Field, as the top two face off in front of the ABC cameras. Southern Districts will be aiming for their eleventh win in a row and an unbeaten first half of the season, while hosts Eastwood look to peg back the 10 point gap to the leaders, and banish the memory of their last TV appearance when they shipped 50pts to a rampant Manly.

But there is another, more personal reason why the Woodies and their fans will be hoping for victory. The team will run out under the watchful eye of coach Brian Melrose for the last time, before his move to Europe to take up a coaching position with Irish side Connacht. And sending him out as a winner must be high on the agenda of everyone involved with the club.

His tenure has been one to marvel at as he has taken on a struggling side, rebuilt it by placing trust in a batch of young recruits, and produced a team that is not only challenging at the top of the ladder, but also does so in some style. The remarkable backdrop to all this achievement is that the Eastwood club itself was in danger of going out of business a little over a year ago, and is still far from being in a comfortable situation.

Their current 2nd place position on the ladder follows on from last season’s 4th place finish, and the investment in youth has paid off handsomely as TG Millner now resembles a production line of young rugby talent that is not only feeding into the club system, but is now making inroads into the Super Rugby market as well. Players such as Ben Alexander, Locky McCaffrey, Benny Coridas and Tim Bennetts, have all been introduced under Melrose’s tutelage, with the likes of John Grant, Cam Mitchell and the Brecht twins looking set to continue that trend over the next few years.

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In his playing days for Parramatta in 1999 – Photo: SPA Images

Growing up amongst a famous footballing family, ‘Billy’ – as he is affectionately known – has been around the Australian rugby scene for around 30 years, starting in the Parramatta colts side in 1980 at the age of 16. He progressed to 1st Grade within two years, and was a part of the successful Two Blues Premiership campaigns in both 1985 and 1986. How times have changed.

He then moved to West Harbour before finishing his playing career at Eastwood in a player/mentor type role, just as the likes of Matt Dunning and Tim Donnelly were emerging. He amassed a total of 380 grade matches (260 in 1st Grade), and appeared in four Grand Finals and ten finals series altogether.

His coaching career began back at Concord Oval with the Pirates in 2001, as he began a happy trend of lifting previously struggling clubs and taking them to the finals series within twelve months. He was the Shute Shield Coach of the Year in 2002, before moving to Manly and gaining a reputation for attractive football that has been a hallmark ever since.

Off the back of his work with the Marlins, he enjoyed a couple of profitable seasons with the Waratahs as their attack and kicking coach, before leading the unfancied Western Sydney Rams into the inaugural and, as it turned out, unique ARC final as Minor Premiers. In doing so, he projected the likes of Kurtley Beale, Tatafu Polota-Nau, Lachie Turner and Ben Alexander firmly into the rugby public’s eye.

A stint with the Australian U20’s at the 2008 Junior World Cup in Wales preceded his return to the Shute Shield with the Woodies, where his legacy for immediate success achieved with élan has been further enhanced. All in all it’s been a fascinating rugby life thus far, and I couldn’t pass up the chance to catch up with Brian prior to his impending swansong to look back at his coaching journey, his time with Eastwood, and Saturday’s big game…

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Did you always intend to be a coach while you were still playing, or is it something you simply fell into?

“All I wanted to do was play, and I did that for as long as I could, which was probably to my detriment physically as I can’t run anymore through knee damage. The only reason I became a coach was that I couldn’t play anymore, and John Griffiths asked me to help out with West Harbour first grade as a skills coach. I guess from a young age I was interested in how the game was played, and being one of four boys from the Hills area in the 1960’s meant that we had a two versus two test match almost every day. We were largely self taught, and spent hours and hours learning and teaching ourselves how to do things.

“I was lucky enough to be exposed to a range of coaching that went from extraordinarily innovative and cutting edge at the time, to harsh coaching like you would not believe, and also extremely poor coaching. Earlier on in my playing career, I would take note of how coaches assisted and nurtured some players but would destroy others, and I know how different I was as a player when I was coached well.”

Your track record is one that highlights your ability to turnaround a club’s fortunes in a short period of time. What do you bring to the table to be able to implement such a radical reversal of fortune?

“It is probably for others to give you the answer to that. But I think I learnt a lot from my playing days, where I was lucky enough to play in a lot of teams that improved greatly as well. I just cannot accept standing still or not doing everything to improve, and I developed from that a number of principles and philosophies that I have made into my own little coaching bible if you like.

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Melrose took his coaching bow at West Harbour alongside Joe Barakat – Photo: SPA Images

“I was brought up to have a go, and I watched my elder brothers achieve tremendous things at young ages without having any advantages given to them. In our days back at Parra in the 80’s, we went from last to first in a couple of years, and our coach did it differently. When people are down, they want to see energy and commitment in the leader above and beyond what they have had previously. They also need to know what they are trying to achieve, and have a belief and understanding of how they can get there.

“I try to have time for the players, work with and alongside them and be pretty open with them. I tell it how it is, not how they want to hear it, but I also know that people need encouragement and everyone loves a pat on the back. Three and five year plans are nice, but most of them are done to impress administrators etc and to justify your position if you don’t improve quickly. I like to have a long-term vision as well, but I usually keep it to myself and a couple of people close to me. Other than that, I work on a one week plan. Give whatever we have to get a win this week, and move on to the next. You can’t get too distracted by what is happening in the future, look after the now.”

You also appear to have a knack for unearthing young talent. Is this something you aspire to do, and would like to leave as a legacy at Eastwood?

“I remember sitting on the lounge room floor with my family watching my brother play the All Blacks at Eden Park in 1978. He was 18 and in his second year of first grade. I was lucky enough to have a coach who believed in me to play first grade at the same age, and I remember thinking that I would never let that coach down, and I would repay that faith. As a coach, I have rarely been let down by the young guys. It is no secret at Eastwood that we don’t have the financial situation we would like, so it is important and a reality that we need to promote youth to go forward. Plus they generally cost less!

“I was lucky to get a few top quality young local juniors like Tim Bennetts, Locky McCaffrey and Cam Mitchell etc last year. They just had to aim up in a short time and have done so. In last year’s Preliminary final against Sydney Uni we had five guys aged 19 on the field, which does make you feel proud, and they should be proud of themselves too. It is exciting and challenging to coach the young guys as they are enthusiastic and have ambition, which can overcome their inexperience. Against Gordon recently we ended the game with eight 19 to 20-year-old’s on the field. I guess it will be a legacy if you want to call it that, and I hope the club can enjoy success out of that.”

This record with young players and bringing the best out of them extends to a few famous names in recent Australian rugby history. Can you talk about some of the players you’ve either unearthed or nurtured, and which are the best ones you’ve worked with?

“In the early days when I was co-coaching with Joe Barakat at Wests, we brought in Rodney Blake and Salesi Ma’afu out of school. At Manly I saw a young Cliffy Palu on a back field at training and he was a standout – you did not have to have a good eye to notice him. Peter Hewat was older but I brought him down from Brisbane when he was going nowhere. I spent a lot of time with Pete and he is still a personal friend, and for a player not many rated he has had a pretty good career. He just needed belief and a confidence in his surroundings as he’s so talented.

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Peter Hewat was talent-spotted by Melrose and brought to Manly – Photo: SPA Images

“In 2007 the Western Sydney Rams drew their pool of players from the three bottom teams and Eastwood, who were mid-table. I decided to gamble a bit and look at guys born in the west who did not get picked up in other teams. Kurtley Beale and Lachie Turner had great seasons there, and others like Tatafu Polota-Nau and Ben Alexander really emerged or grew to be top shelf players. The other player I picked – somewhat controversially out of Colts – was Ben Coridas. He was sensational until his injury, and he’s continued to be dogged by bad luck in that area here at Eastwood. He is a top shelf player and I believe an international, and he will show it if he can get a stretch of luck.

“In the Aussie Under 20’s, it is true that I went outside the pathway players to find a few others. Richard Kingi was a utility player who I saw in a club trial. I asked him if he had ever played no.9 and he said no but would give it a go. I decided to pick him as a back-up to Will Genia just on his ability, and it is great to see him become a Wallaby. I have had a lot to do with some of the players, and others I just picked them and they progressed their careers on their own ability with only a little help from me. The best ones? George Smith was a freak, and when you are lucky enough to work in professional teams that contain Genia, Palu, Lote Tuqiri, Quade Cooper, Mat Rogers and Benn Robinson etc, it is too hard to say. They are all good.”

Your time in the Shute Shield is coming to an end – at least for the foreseeable future. What differences have you seen in the competition across your time as a player and coach?

“I don’t have the necessary time or space to answer that fully, but I will mention a couple of things that have changed over the years. When I started playing, test players would come to pre-season in January and ring the coach to say if they were unable to attend training in case they were dropped. When they played tests, they would back up on the Sunday to play for their club and it was just normal, no super human feat. You just did it, and it allowed the young players to have interaction and play with and against the top players week in, week out.

“That naturally doesn’t happen as much now with the professional players having greater time constraints with their franchises etc. The other day, we got an email that said U20 players would not be able to play this weekend after being at the World Cup, yet some have not played much in four or five weeks. It’s not wrong, it’s just how it’s changed. This year’s competition will have the highest standard finish I would say for a decade or so, which is great. What next year’s looks like with the expanded Super 15 could be a little down from this year on player availability.”

One venture you were a part of, albeit briefly, was the short-lived ARC. Were you sad to see it go, and what can the ARU do to create a middle-tier level of competition if it is still needed?

“I can understand that the ARC was financially a strain and clubs were upset about it, but as a competition it was fantastic to be involved with and offered great opportunities. I feel a compromise could be a comp that gave a pathway that allowed for players to compete against each other at a higher, more pro level. The comp could have done without a team from Perth and Melbourne as they were no doubt expensive, so teams could be more aligned with clubs and be based in Sydney, Brisbane and Canberra. You could maybe scale down the training facilities and the other costs a little, and if it had a few years, I believe it could be a more financially viable model as it became a part of the rugby fabric.”

How did the Connacht opportunity arise and what drew you there, and what is the club’s expectation level and your own targets?

“They just called and talked for a while and then offered me the job. I just appreciate the opportunity to go and assist with coaching in a big league. Connacht have been at the bottom for many years, and have some restrictions on budget and player recruitment compared to their opponents such as Leinster, Munster and Ospreys but again, you can’t worry about that. I will just go there, see what the head coach wants, and then do all I can to add something and see if we can get some improvement. It’s a significant challenge as they cannot presently recruit the players that their opponents can. But there’s no use whingeing about it, we just need to be realistic in assessing where they are, and work out how to do it differently or add something.”

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Calling the shots at Manly in 2003 – Photo: SPA Images

Ok, onto Eastwood. Given the paucity of the club’s situation, there’s been stories of you cutting the grass, marking the lines, and doing odd-jobs around the ground at TG Millner etc. How accurate are they and if so, has that hampered your chances of progressing on the field, or actually given you a more enriching experience?

“I’ve never cut the grass! That is taken care of expertly by Phil Young. The last 18 months have been challenging but as you mention, in the long run it becomes satisfying if you can overcome the obstacles. Before I was a coach I was a builder, so doing a few jobs is not foreign. Doing a bit of painting spruces things up a bit, and I guess if you don’t keep sweeping the gym out and putting all the weights back each morning, the place just gets run down. Our voluntary GM does a great job but sometimes works from home, so most days you just work alone, and when you ask yourself a question you can answer it as well.

“We have great managers and helpers, and the facility is good to work at with a training field and gym etc in the one complex. In that way we are wealthy. The gym is not world class, but the weights weigh what they are supposed to and you just have to lift them. You have to be a little careful to make sure the screwdriver is in place where the bolt fell out of the weights bench or it might collapse, but that just heightens awareness. If the sand falls out of the power bag on your head we just get some strapping tape and make a few running repairs. People die laughing at our exercise bikes but they do the trick – it’s all fun and brings an earthiness.”

Your last game in charge is against an unbeaten Southern Districts. How can you defeat them, who are their danger men, and can they still be caught for the Minor Premiership given their current points advantage?

“If I tell you, I would have to kill you! They have some real strike players across the board and their scrum has been dynamic. They could be caught for the Minor Premiership for sure at this stage, but they have a good lead and are doing a great job at present.”

The ABC cameras will be there, it’s 1st v 2nd, and you’re facing an unbeaten team. The script is written for a fitting send off isn’t it?

“There are no fairy tales, we will get what we work for. But you’re right to say it is a big match. Rarely do teams go ten wins unbeaten, so Souths come here with a record that is incredibly impressive. No other team has found a way to overcome them to this point so it is a real challenge, and that is what you are involved in the game for, to test yourself against the best and see where you stand. The last time the ABC cameras were here was not our finest 80 minutes versus Manly, so I hope we can put up a better performance for the cameras this time.”

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Melrose is certain that assistant John Manenti is the right man to succeed him – Photo: SPA Images

How pleased will you be with the job you’ve done at the Woodies when you actually wave goodbye on Saturday, and can they maintain their upward curve in your absence?

“I just hope we can finish playing well and I leave the team in a position where they can contend for the rest of the year. I have tremendous belief in the boys, and with players to return I feel we can do well. John Manenti knows the team and will do a great job.”

Have you prepared mentally or emotionally for the farewell, it’s going to be tough isn’t it?

“Not really. I just concentrate on what is in front of me and the job I have to do for the team. Some people describe me as intense, but they don’t know me properly or what I feel inside. My relationship with the players is private and while they will move on, I will be sad to leave them.”

Go well Billy!

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First published by clubrugby.com.au on June 26th, 2010

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