When the call comes to manage a national team it is often a hard one to ignore, regardless of the country, and that was certainly the case for Errol Brain when the opportunity arose to coach Portugal.
The former New Zealand Maori captain has been set the task of ensuring Portugal qualify for Rugby World Cup 2015 in England after missing out on next year’s tournament in New Zealand, but he is under no illusions that the process will be a step by step one with no quick fix.
“It was a fantastic opportunity for me. On my rugby journey through life I have had some amazing experiences and to have the opportunity to coach the Portugal national team is one of those,” Brain told Total Rugby Radio earlier this week.
“It is not something that I saw on the horizon six months ago, but once the dialogue started and we were able to identify that both the Portugal Rugby Union and my philosophies on the way rugby should be played were reasonably aligned, I got excited about the opportunity and when it came up I definitely took it.”
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A former Super 12 winner with the Auckland Blues, Brain has played and coached in Japan as well as worked with representative sides in his native New Zealand and been a high performance referee selector – all roles which have helped develop his rugby philosophy.
“I believe that the game needs to be played so players can really express their skills. It's never been about me as a coach, it's about the players and the players being able to show their wares so when they get that opportunity to show that they get enjoyment, and when they get enjoyment they play better and when they play better hopefully they win.
“When I talked to the Portugal Union, particularly (Director of Rugby) Tomaz Morais, about the way I saw the game being played and my understanding of the Portuguese player they had a very similar philosophy in terms of they are genetically not big compared to a lot of the other countries around the world so they need to play a game at tempo.
“That is where we were very aligned in terms of how we should take forward this side.”
Brain may have only taken over as Portugal national coach in September, leaving previous incumbent Morais to focus on the Sevens side and overall coaching structures, but he has already established what the biggest challenges will be to realising his World Cup qualification target.
“I have identified in my short time being here that my biggest challenge will be being able to get the players up-skilled to the level that is required to play international rugby at a high tempo,” continued Brain.
“In Portugal the players aren’t physically as big as some of these other countries, so our conditioning and our ability to play the game for 80 minutes is something that we are going to have to work really hard on and it is not something we are going to solve overnight for us to be competitive again in European rugby and hence to get to the goal which is the 2015 World Cup, because there is a pressure to get there, absolutely.
“Obviously along the way we have these autumn internationals and then in February-March we have games against Russia, Romania, Ukraine, Georgia and Spain (in the European Nations Cup), so along the way we have to set little mini goals and tick them off as we go.”
The first “baby step” on this road comes on Saturday when Brain takes charge of his first international against the visiting USA Eagles, who have already confirmed their participation at Rugby World Cup 2011 under Eddie O’Sullivan.
“It will be a huge step for us in terms of being able to win this game and it is an international so we want to get out there and win it, but it is going to be very difficult and I am very realistic in terms of what we are going to have to do to win this game," added Brain.
“It is exciting. The problem we have got here with the Portugal players is they haven’t played together for near to eight or nine months and we have got players coming from France that only came into camp on Monday night, so we only have a short time to get everyone up to speed for the game this weekend against the USA.”
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