By David Wilkinson
Legendary cross-code player and Coach, Clive Griffiths, came to Priory Park last week, for the first of a series of defence coaching sessions with the Senior Squad.
Clive Griffiths played his club rugby with the likes of Phil Bennett at Llanelli from 1971 (aged 17) to 1979. Whilst he was capped by Wales in 1979, he spent more time on the bench, as the incumbent, JPR, rarely got injured! He started his 43 years coaching career at the age of just 25, while playing for Llanelli, coaching Newcastle Emlyn RFC.
In 1979 Eric Ashton enticed him away from Union to play for St Helens for the record fee of £27,000; Griffiths telling me: “The only difference back then (allegedly) was that the League players paid income tax”. Clive would go on to amass 600 points for St Helens over a five-year stint, also winning caps for Wales, followed by another 388 points scored for Salford.
In 1986 he went back to St Helen’s to start his league coaching career; he would go on to have great success coaching Wales and Great Britain plus a stint with Warrington. In 2006 he came back to Union to coach Doncaster Knights followed by Worcester Warriors and then a second period at Doncaster, which would last for 9 years. Clive told me: “I couldn’t retire, that’s impossible, I did have some plans to join another club, but that fell through with Covid and I’ve decided to do part-time work”. He is helping with coaching at Bury Grammar School, where his son is, and intends to do 4 or 5 defensive sessions at Macclesfield. One would imagine, that if he so chooses, his skills would be very much appreciated by most clubs.
When Macclesfield Head Coach Andy Appleyard, first came to Macclesfield, as Attack Coach, he was still working for England 3 days a week; the other two days he put himself about to increase his knowledge. Knowing a few players at Doncaster Knights, he managed to get in there to do some sessions with Clive Griffiths, Clive says: “Andy was hungry to learn, and I was impressed with that, when somebody is that keen, you’re equally keen to help them”. No doubt that keenness is paying dividends now, with the lads at Macclesfield benefitting from some international standard defence coaching.
The first session started with some big-screen graphics. To comply with Covid restrictions this was set up, pitch-side, outside the changing rooms. I had asked Clive what his objectives were, with his coaching sessions at Priory Park: “Macclesfield finished third last season, just missing out on promotion, their average points against were twenty; the top of the Premiership, Bristol and Exeter average around 17 – and that’s the difference. If we can improve defence to stop a penalty, stop a score, it can make that small margin of a difference – you have to complete 90% of your tackles, 88% would be good, and if you can do that, you’ll win the league”. The pre-session graphic presentation laid the grounding for what was to come: what referees were looking for in the tackle-situations and getting on the right side of the law while making an effective tackle: “It was good for the boys to see the detail on screen with real examples, I showed them examples of how even the best can get it wrong, Toby Faletau tackling CJ Stander in Wales against Ireland match, and getting his head completely on the wrong side – and bounced-off”.
Clive’s mantra in getting the tackle height right is ‘hitting the bull’s eye’, and he showed the lads on the pitch just how this can be perfected: “You can have a six-foot five forward hitting a five foot five back, so accuracy is extremely important, or you’ll soon be off”. In the one-to-one session, that followed, with tackle bags, Clive demonstrated ‘hitting the bull’s eye’ by getting the tacklers to hit a specific point on the tackle bag, like a letter on the logo of the bag. Clive explained that whilst it’s nothing new, but a very successful way of teaching and coaching, to explain the technical detail on screen and then to immediately put it into practice on the pitch.
The sessions were punctuated with 3-minute game scenarios to test out the coaching drills in a match-play situation. Clive’s final session with the boys recreated the ruck guard defence, with attack and defence pods of four shuffling side-ways, at his command, moving the point of attack – and employing the bull’s eye tackle bag technique. He explained to me: “I said to the boys, defence is part of the whole, without it the game has no structure – if there’s a weak link it will be found, for example, Ben Youngs’ try in the Six Nations; there’s a 5-metre ruck and he throws a dummy, the inside guard buys it and Youngs scores. It shouldn’t happen, no one should get beaten on the inside, trust in your defensive structure”.
Clive was very impressed with the level of professionalism and enthusiasm shown by the boys: “….and they’re noisy when they’re doing their drills, which is great; I’ve asked them to work on doing a bit extra, before or after sessions; it could be the big-boys working on their footwork, extra minutes become extra hours, becomes second-nature”. Next week his session will be more tactical leading up to the two games against Sheffield Tigers on the 8th and 15th May, followed by a break before the end of June, when scrums and lineouts will presume.
Head Coach Andy Appleyard is delighted with Clive’s contribution to the coaching set-up: “It’s brilliant that he’s here, his technical knowledge and enthusiasm is second to none – we hope he’ll be around for a while”.
50 years of elite rugby, for both codes, has created a wealth of experiences for Clive Griffiths, from watching Wales from the Western Terrace to be greeted by your pals watching you from the Western Terrace to scoring your first Rugby League try with a pass from Alex Murphy. The following however typifies rugby; after retiring from Rugby League as a player and starting his League coaching career, he used to play for St Helens Rugby Union Nomads (4th team) with Bob Prosser (also ex-St Helens and Salford). The pair of them playing half-back against Preston Grasshoppers were spotted by a committee member who commented: “Those two are pretty good, in fact, they could probably play for the Seconds”; little did he know!
Club-life has got back to some state of normality, all sections are up and running, Boules were thrown on the Petanque course on Friday again and a few pals got together outside the Sin Bin to celebrate not going on tour again! The Rugby Sevens tournament in July is getting booked up, with the senior men’s section nearly sold out.
Weekend’s Rugby Round-up
The highlight was England’s win over France, in the Women’s Six Nations Final. As expected, this was a very competitive affair, whilst England was dominant with a lot of possession, France’s defence
was resilient, with the ball rarely reaching England’s speedy wingers. It took the battling Poppy Cleall to make the difference charging over at the end of the first half. France fought back but it was the Red Roses day for the third time on the trot.
The Premiership saw some equally competitive, but thankfully, more high-scoring contests. Exeter was back to Exeter at their best, their dominant defence and counter rucking stole-the-day. Smith’s last-gasp try for Harlequins showed just how good he is, as he gave London Irish the ‘coup de gras’ for a Quins win. Newcastle was also put to the sword as Rees-Zammit showed again why he should be on the plane to South Africa in the Summer. Also on the plane should be Biggar, who controlled the Saints, steering their win away over Tigers. Worcester started well against Sale, but when Sale switched on their power game, they very quickly pulled away. Once again Aaron Reed showed his potential, supporting an electric break by Tom Curry, taking an inside pass to accelerate under the sticks. The Warriors nearly nicked it towards the end of the contest, but their poor home record continues with Sale Sharks bagging the five points. Sunday saw Wasps against Bath in a classy contest with Umaga back to his scintillating form of last season. There were plenty of tries but with Wasps bagging one more for a 39 – 29 win, but not without cost; Launchbury was forced to hobble off on 32 minutes, now confirmed as a ruptured ACL and definitely not on the plane!