By Jon Newcombe
No sooner had Gerry Roberts arrived back in Wales from a week-long stay in Serbia he was packing his bags again to undertake more rugby missionary work in Madrid.
As well as his full-time position as Coach Development Manager for the Welsh Rugby Union Roberts is a licensed IRB Trainer, a role which takes him all over Europe with the aim of improving coaching standards.
On his latest visit to Serbia – his fifth trip to the eastern European country in as many years – he ran an IRB Level 1 Coaching Course and Clinic.
Based on the banks of the River Danube, the Karatas Sports Club accommodated Roberts and fellow IRB official Dragan Pavlovic, together with 12 local coaches and 26 players under the age of 15.
For first time attendee and Rugby Club Partizan coach Nemanja Babic it soon became clear why Roberts is held in such high regard by his fellow countrymen.
“I feel as though I have improved and developed much more confidence in coaching kids,” Babic said during a break in training.
“The importance of getting the basic skills right in rugby cannot be underestimated and Gerry Roberts is regarded by people in Serbia as being the best educator there is in that respect.
“This course has really opened my eyes, particularly about how you communicate with players, briefing them beforehand and getting feedback off them following a session.
“Gerry encourages us to praise the players all of the time and I now feel that I’ve got a better understanding of young players and of rugby in general.”
Coaching core skills
Given a new task each day the local coaches were instructed on the process required to execute a side step and a swerve as well as other core skills like lateral passing, taking advantage of a two-on-one situation and safe tackling techniques.
With temperatures soaring into the high 30s, Roberts decided to spread the course over five days instead of three.
Each day was loosely split into three sections with a morning and evening rugby session for children who had signed up for the annual Karatas sports camp and a three-hour slot dedicated to Roberts ‘coaching the coaches’ sandwiched in between.
Aligning the two events together worked particularly well as it enabled the coaches to put their new-found ideas into practice in the evening session when the blazing Serbian sun was not at its strongest.
“While they were there we thought it made sense to make use of the kids,” said Roberts, a full back in his playing days for his hometown club Bedwas. “They all seemed to enjoy themselves, which is the important thing, and it worked out really well for the coaches because it enabled them to try out what they had learnt earlier in the day in an active coaching session.”
Rugby has always been a passion for Roberts, now 52 years old, and his rise up the rugby coaching development ranks has been the proverbial armchair ride ever since he packed in his former trade as a furniture manufacturer.
Welsh bond with Serbia
Three years ago he was put forward by his Union to be considered by the IRB as a Trainer, and a special relationship with Serbian rugby has developed ever since. Serbia is one of the five countries that Wales helps to look after as part of the IRB’s commitment to developing the sport in emerging nations. Wales’s involvement in the Training, Educating and Support (TES) scheme also extends to Germany, Luxembourg, Ukraine and Romania.
Culturally it is a neat fit, according to Pavlovic, Roberts’s right hand man on the ground in Serbia.
One of the rugby sessions at the annual Karatas sports camp, giving attendees of the Level 1 Coaching Course a perfect opportunity to practise what they had just learnt
“Gerry and I agree that our countries are very similar because they only have small populations and the people are very proud,” he said.
“We try to implement the Welsh way of playing but Serbia is only a small rugby playing nation and we are hundreds of miles away from being like them.
“Sports such as football, handball, volleyball, basketball, tennis and water polo are professional in our country whereas rugby in Serbia is amateur.
“Sometimes we take two or three steps forward only to then take one step back simply because we don’t have the facilities.
“Ninety per cent of the clubs have no proper playing or training facilities. In the whole of Serbia there are only two dedicated rugby pitches.
“But the support we get from the IRB and the WRU is very important to us and it has made a big difference in the performance of our junior sides.
“Two years ago our Under 18 side was in Group C of the FIRA/AER European Under 18 Championship and now it is in Group B. That improvement is a by-product of the good cooperation we have with the IRB, WRU and Gerry Roberts.”
For Roberts helping coaches to develop is the ultimate goal.
“You’ve got to be a good listener to be an educator and also to be clear in the message that you want to get across,” he said.
“Of course the language barrier can sometimes get in the way. But rugby is a demonstrative sport so a lot of the time you can get by with hand gestures and the like. A couple of coaches on the recent course spoke good English too, and there are always interpreters on hand.
“When I’m out there on the training field I just make sure I deliver what needs to be delivered.”
He continued: “The enjoyment comes from seeing people improve.
“Don’t get me wrong, the Serbians have their own ideas, they are clever people. I just like to think I add a different voice and maybe bring some new ideas with me about how the game can be played.
“Serbia is typically eastern European in that the machismo aspect to rugby is very popular.
“The biggest cheer often comes from someone smashing into an opponent rather than the ball going through 10 pairs of hands and ending with a try in the corner.
“It is not really in my remit to try and change that mindset, I just try and give them alternatives and suggest more beneficial ways to approach the game in certain situations.
“All the coaches on the latest course were very receptive and the improvement across the board was noticeable after only a couple of days. They did better than I first thought they would do.”
The course has certainly inspired 28-year-old former back rower Babic to continue on the coaching path.
“It was great to hear Gerry’s views of rugby and share our own thoughts,” he said. “I had to finish playing the game because of injuries. My aim now is achieve level 3 status as a coach and become an educator.”