After its feast-and-famine 2016-17 season, Winchester has appointed Gareth Martin as its new senior players’ coach: someone who came to rugby before his life began.
Born in London towards the end of Wales’s golden era, his sport-loving parents christened him Gareth Edward after the legendary Wales and Lions scrum-half. Though educated at a non-rugby school in Cheshire, at the age of 11 he was inspired by England’s successive Five Nations grand slams under Will Carling and Geoff Cooke, either side of a 6-12 defeat to Australia in the 1991 World Cup final, to join Chester Rugby Club.
Since then, he has played and coached in England, New Zealand and Australia, with and against Scotsmen, Welshmen, Irishmen, Englishmen, New Zealanders, Samoans, Fijians and Australians, many of them present or past internationals.
“The coldest I’ve ever been on a rugby pitch was in Invercargill, at the southern tip of New Zealand’s South Island, and the hottest on the edge of the Outback in Queensland”, he says. Clearly, he has not just been there, done that, but he has soaked up different rugby cultures like a sponge, and loved almost every minute of it.
At 18, not content with playing at flanker for Chester for only eight months of the year, he started playing as a loose forward in rugby league in the summer, and learned another rugby culture from the hugely experienced Warrington Wolves coach Russel Jones.
At Chester, Martin had been coached by Denley Isaac, the former Wales forwards coach. “These were still the days before professionalism really took hold of the game, when young players like me looked up to the club’s first team, rather than Premiership and international players, as their role models. I could imagine nothing better than being asked to turn out for Chester’s first team.”
At Chester he became friends with a Kiwi player, who arranged for him to to play in Otago. “The most amazing and formative experience ever; beyond Rugby” Two years later, he returned to satisfy his ambition to play for Manchester’s first team, then in the equivalent of today’s Championship. He was a regular in their back row for four seasons.
At Manchester, Martin was coached by ex-Sale and England lock Dave Baldwin. “There were two things Dave would not tolerate, apathy and lethargy. With him in charge, total commitment and constant hard work became second nature.”
At the age of 28, he decided to retire from playing and concentrate on coaching. His decision was prompted partly by growing success in his profession in advertising as an expert in the fast-growing field of digital marketing, which led to the offer of a job in Australia, but partly too because a number of his contemporaries and buddies in the Manchester first team had also decided to retire. It is clear as I listen to him that the close bonds of friendship that rugby forges are important to him.
But in the wake of this, a dark shadow fell over his rugby world, when within a week of each other two of his rugby-playing friends took their own lives. “I just turned my back on the game”, he says.
Then one day an Australian work colleague persuaded him to come to her teenage son’s rugby club, the North Ward Sand Crabs in Townsville, and watch a training session. “These 14-year-olds had all the “silky” skills – pretty rugby with not a trace of dog in it. Winning was simply not on the agenda”, he says. “No wonder they were bored stiff. By the end of the session, I was in love with rugby all over again, and I took over as the group’s coach.”
When work took him north to Rockhampton in Queensland, he joined the Brothers club and the CQ Brahmans as assistant coach to Onehunga (Onnie) Mata'uiau, who had played at hooker for Samoa the 1999 World Cup. “An amazing man from whom I learned so much”, he says. “He had played at the very top level, always with a smile on his face, and he coached the same way. For him the essential thing never to be forgotten is that people play rugby for fun, even if they’re being paid to do it.”
Gareth Martin has all the badges a rugby coach can get. “But that’s only the start”, he says. “It’s easy to coach a squad to play the patterns, but it stops being easy when they come up against 15 others bent on beating them. That’s when experience as well as paper qualifications start to tell.”
Earlier this year, Martin’s happy sojourn in Australia came to a sudden end, when political upheavals following President Trump’s election led to a political lurch to the right in Australia, and the government refused to renew his working visa. He and thousands of other expatriates were given a month to pack up and get out.
His mother and sister had meantime moved south, and he came to stay with the former – still a keen rugby supporter - in Littleton. One of the first things he did was to come and watch Winchester’s first team in action, seeing them lose to Havant by one point in the Hampshire Cup Final. He was instantly hooked.
“I’ve worked in advertising for a long time now”, he says. “My motto as a coach is the old Martini slogan – Any time, any place, anywhere – because that’s what you have to do to play good rugby. I learned in Australia that silky skills don’t win you games: you need a touch of the mongrel too, and you need that overwhelming desire for victory. Those are the things I aim to instil in the players I coach.
“It’s about empowering the players; it’s about people skills like building the team ethos, nurturing leadership qualities, keeping a degree of constant surprise in training, so that players are always on their toes.
“At the Brothers Club, I got the men’s team and the women’s team to do their pre-season fitness training together. When the girls started winning the sprints and the 400-metre training races, that certainly got the men on their toes! We might try that at Winchester. Every training session will be different from the last.”
As I leave, the players are arriving for a game of touch rugby, and Gareth is joining his fellow-coaches Tim Lander and Jake Hiscock and the ex-coach, now Director of Rugby, Andy Fields to draw up what he calls “our coaching manifesto”. It should make more exciting reading than some of the other manifestos we’ve seen in the last few weeks.
Pre-season training starts at Winchester’s North Walls Park ground on Tuesday 4th July.
Updated 23:31 - 14 Jun 2017 by Tim Fell