The Talent Optimisation Programme is into its ninth edition and it was hosted for the eighth time by the Stellenbosch Academy of Sport, about 50km east of Cape Town and situated in an historic rugby centre. It targets coaches, trainers and match officials from the Tier 2 nations who don’t have their own high performance programme.
This year’s course had 34 participants from countries like Canada, Fiji, Georgia, Japan, Kenya, Netherlands, Romania and Russia, but was also attended by delegates from Argentina and Scotland.
The South African Rugby Union (Saru) are highly supportive of T.O.P. and this year the participants enjoyed a rare treat when Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer and his management team gave a presentation on their plans for next year’s World Cup.
“Both the quality of input – the presenters we had – and the application of the delegates were absolutely wonderful and it was a big week for them. We had 12 coaches, eight match officials and four of their coaches, and 10 strength and conditioning trainers attending. All these guys have come through the IRB educational pathways, levels one to three, and this was like a finishing school for them,” Mark Harrington, the IRB head of technical services, said.
“Saru have been brilliant, providing all their coaching staff, including Heyneke Meyer, and Nick Mallett and Mark Lawrence were also heavily involved. The feedback we received was hugely positive, especially Heyneke’s presentation, while Nick got them really thinking around the current preferred style of play in rugby. He even predicted what would happen to the Sharks five days before the game!”
Other countries represented at T.O.P. were Tonga, Singapore, Portugal, Brazil, Belgium, Germany, Hong Kong, United Arab Emirates, USA, Mexico, Uruguay and Spain and all the participants have significant experience and qualifications which just need to be polished in a high-performance environment.
The course was run under the watchful eyes of ex-Scotland coach Richie Dixon, former Wales lock Phil Davies, Steph Nel of the Western Province Institute, Bernd Gabbei, the IRB referee development consultant, Des Ryan, the head of sports medicine and athletic development at the Arsenal Academy, and Liam Hennessy, Ireland’s former head of fitness.
The uprising of enthusiasm within the delegates was noticeable and there is no doubt they will return to their countries eager to impart the knowledge they have obtained at T.O.P.
“It’s one of the best courses I’ve ever been to and I can’t wait to pass on the knowledge from here to other coaches back home. It was phenomenal what I learnt in terms of technique, tactics and administration too,” Kevin Mwema, a Kenyan high performance coach said.
His compatriot, Michael Owino, is a strength and conditioning coach in the national sevens programme, and he expressed similar sentiments.
“It was a great week, learning day in, day out, from someone like Liam Hennessy, who trained guys like Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell. He’s one of the best guys to get the knowledge from and I can’t wait to get home to share it all. With the kind of knowledge I now have, I can change mindsets and ensure we have the right culture in our teams,” Owino said.
“That knowledge-sharing aspect is very important and once the course is done, we will have points of further contact with the participants if they need further support. It’s all about info sharing,” Harrington said.
The strength of the T.O.P. is that the IRB have ensured that they have high-quality presenters – ex international coaches like Jake White, Mallett, Gert Smal, Alistair Coetzee, Pieter de Villiers and Jacques Nienaber, former Test stars like Brendan Venter, Rassie Erasmus and David Campese, leading sports scientists like Professor Tim Noakes and Ross Tucker, top referees such as Steve Walsh, Craig Joubert, Jaco Peyper and Lawrence, and even leadership and high performance development author Rasmus Ankerson of The Goldmine Effect.
“We have a specific focus on getting the big guns to come and speak, it’s really important that they are current experts and people that the participants can really learn from. We have twice as many applicants as we have space for and it’s really encouraging to see the depth across the Tier 2 nations,” Jock Peggie, the IRB training manager said.
That can only be good news for the future of rugby and its expansion across the globe.