The IRB’s coaching courses are helping the Solomon Islands take charge of their rugby development, writes Ian Gilbert.
It’s a typically sultry day in Honiara and the tall figure of Frank Meiklejohn is running the rule over 20 hopefuls taking the next step up the coaching ladder at an IRB educator course.
Solomon Islands rugby is growing, and with it comes the need for instructors to earn their spurs at courses such as this, held at a college campus in the nation’s capital.
Sydney-based Meiklejohn, an IRB educator for the region, is helping advance the country’s rugby expertise, but the strategy is about more than just flying in experts from neighbouring Unions such as Australia.
The IRB educator course gives developing rugby nations the wherewithal to steer their own progress; once qualified, the local educators can instruct other coaches and officials.
“It’s training the trainer,” explains Meiklejohn. “What we are looking to do is develop local capability. We have been going to the Solomon Islands for a few years and it takes a while to develop the base you need in a Union, both in terms of coaching skills and individual skills.”
The local coaches taking part at Honiara in early May were split into coach educators and referee educators. Satisfying the IRB trainers they have met the exacting standards required is no formality: only seven of the 20 starters in Honiara passed initially, a figure Meiklejohn says is not unusual.
Participants on the three-day course must deliver four presentations – delivered in pidgin, which Meiklejohn understands through his visits to the Solomons. “It’s all about quality,” explains Nixon Hatigeva, the Solomon Islands Rugby Union's (SIRU) regional development officer and an IRB coach educator.
Nixon played for the Solomon Islands as an inside centre but now, aged 37, his focus is on helping others fulfil their potential. “We’ve got the passion,” he says. “Having more courses ensures the expansion of knowledge. We thought it was more strategic to have more educators – people can live in rural areas and deliver the courses.”
The course imbues passionate rugby devotees with the confidence to translate their playing knowledge to structured coaching – 47-year-old Eric Matangi, another graduate of the Honiara course, stopped playing only three years ago. He coaches with the Avaika rugby club in Honiara and acknowledges the accent on being able to deliver a message. “We were fed with information and told to try to visualise what you want from a coaching perspective.”
The prospect of this expertise filtering through to help the Solomon Islands one day rival neighbours Samoa, Tonga and Fiji excites Matangi. “Definitely,” he says. “We may not have their size but we might replace it with speed – over the next five years we can compete with them.”
The challenge of spreading the word
Such a sparsely populated country with more than 800 islands brings its own logistical problems – the Santa Cruz Islands, for instance, are more than 400km from others in the Solomons archipelago.
One of the graduates of the course, Jim Seuika, can deliver his rugby knowledge while he imparts his legal wisdom – his work as a circuit magistrate takes him to the farthest-flung reaches of the country.
Jim Seuika (in Fiji shirt) looks on as Eric Matangi (crouching, right) demonstrates to Freddy Kafoa Crocker an exercise to improve lineout performance
“This course is another step forward in rugby development in the Solomon Islands,” Seuika says. “If we have a good trainer and good educators, we will have good coaches and we will produce good players. It will allow us to spread the Game of rugby.”
Seuika, 49, can point to his own rugby achievements as proof of how the Game can connect communities. He represented the Solomon Islands – as a wing or outside centre – at the Hong Kong Sevens, then coached the national Sevens side to the bronze medal match in the 2007 Pacific Games. “That’s when Solomon Islands rugby came to life again,” Seuika says.
Laying solid foundations
The Solomon Islands, ranked 69th in the IRB World Rankings, compete in the Oceania Cup, the region’s second-tier competition. The immediate target is challenging Papua New Guinea as the ‘best of the rest’ behind Tonga, Samoa and Fiji, but any advance is dependent on a sound structure, for which Meiklejohn credits Lee Smith, the IRB’s Oceania regional training co-ordinator.
“If you don’t get the foundation right the other stuff is superficial,” Meiklejohn says. “Lee Smith is the person with the vision for the development of the Union."
Oscars Lot (blue and red) take on Frigates (black) in the SolBrew sevens tournament, held in Honiara on 5 May
Meiklejohn, who took up refereeing when his own playing career as a second row in the Brisbane competition was punctuated by injury, is cautious about making predictions for the rise of Solomon Islands rugby. For him, the immediate goal is to see the Solomons perform creditably in representative competition such as the Pacific Games.
“These guys are graduating to senior rugby and winning games – it’s really starting to pay dividends. These guys come with a natural flair and a natural ability. What they are typically missing is the structure, but in any open free-running game they match it with anyone.”
Gift of thanks
As Meiklejohn prepares for his next stint – this year he will also roll out training in Japan and Hong Kong – he is loath to take any credit for his involvement. “It really is all about these guys, and how they are taking the opportunity in their hands. It’s given them the opportunity to own their development.”
Nonetheless, the participants’ appreciation of Hatigeva and Meiklejohn is clear. On the day of the latter’s departure from Honiara, one participant - Harry (Blacky) Mamata - took three buses to take a farewell gift to the airport. On finding Meiklejohn had already boarded his plane, he persuaded a customs officer to forward it to him. “I know this guy has got no money so for him to do that is just unbelievable,” he says.
“That’s the kind of people you are dealing with. That’s why you want to go back and work with these guys.”