Full Interview: Pete Wilkins on becoming Head Coach

21 February 2023

Full Interview: Pete Wilkins on becoming Head Coach

Connacht Rugby have today announced the appointment of Pete Wilkins as Head Coach on a three-year deal, assuming overall responsibility for the Professional team.

Ahead of today's announcement, Wilkins sat down with the club's media team for a wide-ranging interview about his appointment, his plans for the future, and his message to the supporters.

You can watch that interview here or read it below.

Congratulations Pete. How does it feel firstly to be appointed Head Coach of Connacht Rugby, and second to now lead the Professional programme for the next few years?

It’s incredibly exciting. I’m honoured by the opportunity and I can’t wait to get started. From a personal point of view in terms of the progression of my coaching journey to this point it’s a hugely significant step. It’s one I believe I’m ready for, it’s one I feel I’ve worked hard for, and I’m thrilled it’s at a club and a province that I care so deeply about. It’s also a massive privilege. When I look at the names that have come before me - Warren Gatland, Eric Elwood, Pat Lam, Andy Friend - to be able to follow in their footsteps and lead the programme and bring my own flavour to that programme is incredibly exciting and I’m humbled by that.

You’re in your sixth season at the club so you obviously have a very good understanding about Connacht Rugby the club and Connacht the province, so what do both of those elements mean to you?

I’m fully aware of how unique a role Connacht has played in the history of Ireland, let alone rugby but within the country as a whole, and then Connacht Rugby within the province and again within Irish rugby, so there’s a really unique story there in all aspects. It’s something I’m very aware of and it’s something I’m fully immersed and bought into. My first trip to The Sportsground was in 2015 and it was World Cup Final day. I was here as an opposition coach but the spirit of the place, the energy of the supporters…there was a real soul and a real care for what was going around the club. Not just in the club but around the place as a whole. It was something that resonated with me at the time, and I recognised it as a place that knew struggle, that knew determination, and knew what it took to succeed, sometimes against the odds, and I love that about the place. For me to now play a key part in that and lead the club into the next chapter, as I said before it’s a massive honour and it’s something that resonates strongly with me.

For five of your six seasons you have worked with Andy Friend. How influential has he been to you personally over those years?

It's been a real pleasure working for Andy and working with Andy. I’ve been very fortunate in the sense that I’ve had an opportunity to tap into his experience of the game as a Head Coach, an Assistant Coach and a rugby man. He’s been very open in sharing those experiences, but at the same time he’s given me a real freedom to question some of those things and to challenge the way we do things, to try out my own ways of coaching, of reviewing, of preparing players to play. That balance between guiding me but also allowing me my own accountability, to find my own way and find my own identity as a coach, I’m very grateful for that. Certainly as we move forward it’s really important that we continue to build on the positive things that he brought to this programme, this club and this province, but at the same time I’ll be keen to put my stamp on things and freshen things up in other ways as well. So I’ve enjoyed working with Andy and we’ll certainly stay in touch.

Over that time you’ve looked after both attack and defence, so fans would have a general idea about the way you think rugby should be played, but can you give people an idea of the core rugby principles that you adhere to, and what people can expect at The Sportsground next season?

For any Connacht player and any Connacht team, the bare minimum that people expect is unbelievable work ethic, energy, and unbelievable fight. I think that’s always been the case for Connacht as a club and opposition teams will tell you about what that experience is like being on the other end of it, and certainly in my time here those two aspects, the energy and the fight, have been key parts of how we want to play the game and how we want to behave on the field. The playing group we have right now and the playing group we’ll have next season and over the next couple of seasons absolutely fit that mould. In terms of that commitment and those behavioural tickets, to earn a place in this Connacht side and to represent the province, they’re non-negotiable. That’ll be a key point for us still moving forwards.

On the back of that we do have a responsibility to entertain and to inspire. We’re here as representatives of the province, and certainly when Connacht have had success in the past and in my time here as well, we’ve played a really positive brand of rugby. People expect us to be proactive in how we play the game. They expect us to pass, to offload, to run with the ball, and to be really ambitious in the way that we’re trying to play the game. That is something we need to keep working on, it’s something I think we can improve, but it’ll be right at the heart of what we do rugby-wise.

What kind of Head Coach do you see yourself becoming and what kind of Head Coach would you describe yourself as?

I’ve been lucky enough to work for nine different Head Coaches across my time in professional rugby. Certainly that breath of experience is something that’s informed the way that I plan on shaping this Head Coach role. Some of those have been very successful programmes and very successful leaders. Ewan McKenzie at the Reds when we won the Super Rugby title in 2011. Andy Farrell more recently with the Ireland squad when we toured New Zealand which I was fortunate to be a part of. Those qualities that we see in some of those leaders but also understanding how other Head Coaches have shaped the tough times and led a group through some of those experiences as well…I’d like to think all of that informs how I’ll go about the job.

That said, for me the most important thing is that I create an environment and facilitate an environment where players and staff can thrive. There’s a couple of key aspects in terms of achieving that. One is positivity. I don’t just mean putting a smile on a face and everyone bouncing through the door on a Monday morning, as important as that is. I think [it’s] that real proactive positive attitude. That ability to embrace challenge. Not just become resilient and survive the tough times but to really look forward to the next obstacle and how it can shape us and challenge us and grow us. I think that sort of mindset is crucial for any sports team or any organisation that wants to be successful. It’s certainly been a key part of my journey, and for me to instil that in others and help facilitate an environment where that becomes an infectious energy and drives the group forward is really important.

The second thing for me is connections. As a group, it’s important that we connect with the history of Connacht as a place and as a club. I think by understanding the role that this place and this club has played in Irish history and Irish rugby history, I think we need to respect that history and really gain an understanding of that, so that we can relate our own stories to that and understand the context that we’re operating in.

There’s connections within the group, shared experiences as a staff, as a playing group, as a club as whole, I think that’s really important that we get to know each other better at a deeper level. You can talk about being aligned but it’s when the pressure comes on that you really find out just how aligned you are, so building connections there.

Lastly the connections with our community. The whole point of this club and this team is to inspire and represent our community, and the wider province. I think we’ve had a great track record of that but it’s something that we can reconnect to. It was tough through the COVID period, it was difficult to visit schools and difficult to visit clubs, it was difficult for players to really mingle and embrace their roles within the community, so I think it’s really important that we reconnect with that. Certainly over the next season and seasons to come that’s something we’ll be driving hard. If we can achieve those things I think we’ll have an environment that has the potential to be very successful.

At the back end of that comes the rugby. It’s our job to develop players and to improve our own, bring through local Connacht players and improve those that come to Connacht, and if we can do that I think we’ll be on the right track.

Engaging with the province at a grassroots level is obviously very important to this club. So how important is that to you, ensuring that Connacht Rugby is successful not just on the field for the Professional team, but engaging with the clubs at a minis level, youth, schools, women. How important is that to you?

I think that’s our whole purpose as a team. We’re a team for the province, and it’s our role to unite, inspire and represent that province. So everything we do should be driven by how we can best achieve that on the field but also off the field. We’re paid professionals, it’s a job for us. Some of us are from the place, some of us have come from outside, but the bottom line is we’re not here for ourselves, we’re here for the province. I think that’s massively important for us to reconnect with that sense of purpose.

There’s lots of ways in which we can do that, and I think the on-the-grass piece is really important as I said before in terms of how we play the game and playing the game positively. We can also make the game appealing and exciting to people, whether they’re already a part of the rugby community at the wider level or not, but also what we do off-field, and that involvement with the clubs, the schools, the sponsors, with the members of the general public, and the important role that our supporters play in that as well. My two sons are aged 10 and 8 and they’re both regulars at Galway Bay rugby club and it’s part of our life as well. We want to make sure that for us as a team, as a collective, we continue to grow our connections in that area.

A lot of Connacht Rugby fans will be wondering, what does success look like to you and what would you like to achieve over the next few years?

The obvious piece of it is to be playing finals rugby, whether that’s in the URC, the Champions Cup preferably, and if not the Challenge Cup, so we want to be in the knockout stages, we want to be in the sharp end of competition and competing for silverware and I think we’ve shown certainly over these last 5 and a half years that I’ve been involved with that on our day we can beat anyone and do it with some style. But that consistency to perform every week and to make sure we genuinely are there at the top end of the competitions is something that’s really important and something that we need to improve, and I think we can improve.

Beyond that, the player development aspect is very important for us. Certainly bringing through young Connacht players through our pathway into our Academy into the Senior Professional team, that’s an important measure of the work that we’re doing and of the success of the club, and then to get those guys kicking on to international representation is another key aspect. So that pathway and player development, seeing guys really genuinely come through from grassroots to earning the green shirt of Connacht and the green shirt of Ireland is tremendously important.

So I think those two aspects on the field, and again off the field success. We want the public, the community and the wider province to get to know us, to get to know us as people, to get to know us as a team, for us to do justice to those that we’re representing. I think if we can hit that as well we’ll be on a really positive track.

You’ll be taking over at a time when there’ll be immense change around The Sportsground with the redevelopment. How excited are you by the prospect of leading the team through that transition, in what will be such an exciting period for the club?

It's a tremendous period of the club. Obviously work has already been done on the new surface here, and then the new stadium and training facilities to follow. [It’s] unbelievably exciting and we can’t wait. From a selfish point of view, to have the opportunity to utilise those resources and to have a new setup is brilliant for us. It’ll take our preparation, our training and hopefully our performance to the next level. At the same time it comes with massive responsibility. I think this is a really important new chapter for the club and the wider province, and we need to set the right tone going into that new chapter, in terms of not just winning games but how we play and how we carry ourselves around that brand new environment. So it comes with its responsibilities but it’s something we’re thrilled about and can’t wait to experience.

What insight can you give us about the make-up of the coaching team next season?

We’re at the advanced stages of finalising that coaching team. It’s about getting that balance. It’s really important to have some continuity with our coaching group, and certainly over the last few years there has been some change and adjustments within our coaching group, and we want to give the players as much stability as we can moving into this next chapter. At the same time I think it’s really important that we get a bit of freshness in there. For me I’ll be going into my 7th season with this group of players, so fresh voices and fresh ideas in some respect is really important for us to keep growing and keep challenging each other in terms of how we play the game and how we prepare to play the game. The group we’re putting together is exciting, it’s high on rugby intellect and high on coaching intellect. It’s a coaching group which I think the players will really enjoy working with, and I think it’s a group that the supporters will enjoy getting to know as well.

Similarly with the playing squad, what can you tell us about that process as it stands today?

90% of our retention and recruitment work has been completed and there’ll be some really exciting announcements to come over the next few weeks. We’ve got a really aligned and effective recruitment model here, with the work that Tim Allnutt does as our Head of Rugby Operations, Willie Ruane at CEO level and Andy Friend obviously as the Director of Rugby. It’s the best setup I’ve seen in terms of getting that breath of experience and opinion on what it takes to build a squad. The great thing for me is I’ve been able to have an input into that process because I’m obviously already part of the club at this stage. So it’s a squad that’s coming together that will be really exciting. They’re certainly suited to displaying those qualities we talked about earlier – the energy and the fight that we expect from a Connacht team, but at the same time with the ability to inspire and entertain. I think the supporters will be really excited when they see that new squad unveiled and I think they’ll really enjoy getting to know the new players that are coming in.

Finally Pete, what would be your message to the Connacht Rugby supporters watching this today?

Firstly thank you. Thank you for the support that I’ve had in my five and a half years here and the support that we’ve had as a team. Thank you for the welcome in terms of how well my family have settled. We’re out west in Barna and we’re fully immersed in the community out there and it’s been fantastic in the way that the people have taken us into that community and made us feel a part of things. To now have this opportunity to expand my role and to lead the programme and the club into this next chapter, it’s a huge honour and it means an enormous amount, not just to me but to us as a family. The second part for me is I want to really emphasise I understand how important this club is to our supporters and to the wider community and the province as a whole. I know that we have a responsibility not just to be successful on the field but to represent that community in the right way. I think we’ve got a group of people and we’ve got a way of working which I think moving forwards can certainly do that. So I’m really excited to share that journey with them and to look forward to what’s to come.