Then on the 05th of December Italian coach Nick Mallett will guide a Barbarians side with some of the biggest rugby players in the world for their match against the All Blacks. Mallett will be assisted by his long-time Springboks assistant Alan Solomons for the 10th All Blacks-Barbarians fixture dating back to 1954. The last took place at Twickenham in 2004.
SA Promo managed to pin Nick down for a bit of one-on-one to get his thoughts on his experiences playing for the Barbarians and now being given the opportunity to coach them.
When were you approached by Barbarians to take charge of the coaching of the squad and what were your first thoughts?
The first time I was asked to coach the Barbarians was about 3 or 4 years ago but I was coaching Stade Francais at the time and there were fixture clashes so I was unfortunately not able to do it. At the time SF was trying to negotiate with the Southern Hemisphere teams to get an end of year fixture and they had not had it up and running yet. This time around I was contacted in May or June by the Barbarians and asked if I was available, so had a chat with the Italian rugby federation and as it’s after our November tests and I would have finished my commitments it was possible for me to accept. I feel very honoured that they asked me.
You played for the Barbarians; as a player what did this mean to you, and what were your experiences?
It was a long, long time back, I was a student at Oxford and got invited to play – there was an annual game that they used to play against Leicester on Boxing Day and I played in that game. In fact it was a real thrill for me as I was a young student and I got to play with people like Jean-Pierre Rives and Phil Beaumont amongst other really well known players for the Barbarians. So it was a fantastic opportunity for me.
So was it as prestigious back then as it is now?
The thing is you get some recognition in a team that is pretty prestigious even though it’s not a national side. This goes back to all those famous Barbarians games I watched on television, and obviously the famous win over the All Blacks in 1973 and that fantastic Gareth Edwards try started by Phil Bennett on its own 22 – if you’re involved in rugby then the Barbarians have been an essential part of rugby since I can remember. It was a great honour to be picked to play for them and then when rugby turned professional they had to find a place for themselves and they’ve managed to get a really good annual fixture at the end of the year which gives the opportunity for players from different countries to play together – like South Africans, Australians, players from the British Lions – in a one-off game that is just fantastic and hopefully we can make it a lot of fun again this year.
You’ve mentioned some interesting and very well known players but who was the best player you have played with and against when you played for the Barbarians?
Well I was only 21 or 22 at the time and Jean Pierre Rives the captain – had captained France – and they had won the grand slam so he was someone that I was very honoured to play with and as I was a loose forward myself it was a great opportunity to play with him.
And now as a coach – what does it mean for you to be coaching the Barbarians?
Obviously playing is very different from coaching – as a player you got there on your merit as a rugby player and as a coach you have a lot more responsibility. It’s a game the barbarians want to be as competitive as they can be in, and its by being competitive that they’ll keep giving value to a fixture like this. This last year they’ve played against England and managed to beat them, and then they went on tour and managed to lose by about 50 points to Australia – what you really want to do is to make sure the game is a really competitive one; as close a result as possible, the game’s not going to be life changing but you want to make sure the crowd is having a good time watching a close game.
So on that note with a host of top players confirmed – what are your thoughts on the current team selection – are you excited about coaching this group of players?
Yes of course – I coached the South African national side from 97 – 2000, and none of the current SA players were around when I was coaching back then. Now I’m coaching Italy and I have to coach against them and I realise how difficult that is and what a fantastic team they are – all the Tri Nations teams – NZ, Australia and SA – and it keeps on improving in such leaps and bounds – its changed so much in the last 9/10 years from when I was coaching in SA, but its a fantastic opportunity to get to coach players like Matfield and Bakkies Botha and Spies – you know these are guys that have done so well this year with winning the Lions series and the Tri Nations, and for them to get to play with Phillips (Mike) who played so well on the Lions Tour – to have him and Fourie – Fourie du Preez – two great scrumhalves – its going to be very exciting.
Are there any of the Barbarian players selected that you have coached in the past?
I actually coached John Smith, but he’s not available this year, but he’s the one South African player that’s still playing and that was around when I was coaching SA. In 2000 I brought him in as a hooker, and now its quite a long way down and he’s of course moved to tight head prop but having coached SA I’ve really kept in touch with what’s going on there and I know all these players. Italy played against them last year on tour and we’re going to have to play them again in November in Italy – so I know and I’ve watched so much of their rugby that I know them pretty well as players. Also the Australian guys we’ve just come back from a tour – we played two tests down there in June/July – so Matt Giteau, and Mitcham coming over I know them well, Matt Gibson was playing when I was coaching the Springbok side – so there are one or two players still involved.
Do you fancy your chances and foresee an upset win over the All Blacks at Twickenham?
We have a very big star-studded side, the big problem with a Barbarians selection is that it’s quite difficult to get that same team work in a team that only gets to work together for seven days before the test match. I’m going to have to depend one hell of a lot on combinations. Test matches are won through pressure and really good defence and in a Barbarians game the emphasis is on attack and you don’t want to start leaking tries all over the area; NZ is possibly the best attacking side in the world – I think SA is possibly the best defensive side in the world so NZ is a great attacking side and you don’t want to give them any opportunities to turn you over and that organisation and understanding between players comes from playing together and obviously we won’t have that with the Barbarians, so what’s important is to keep combinations, its great to have players like Bakkies Botha and Matfield the two locks together – and Spies – we’ll have a good line out combination. With the forwards there will be quite a number of players that have played together and in the backline the players are such good rugby players and you just hope that with it being their last game of the season – for a lot of them – you just hope that they understand that the game will be a good one if we defend both as good as we intend to attack.
Any thoughts on the style of rugby you want to play – will you be sticking to the usual free flowing, expansive style of the Barbarians?
I think that’s part and parcel of being with the Barbarians, what I think also matters is if the All Blacks have a really good tour, and if they had won all their games then obviously you want them to win the game, you’re going to want them to do it to the best possible way. It doesn’t necessarily mean you want them running out of your 22 all the time it might mean that you’re more aggressive with the tour – you go for the goals or quick tap penalties or going for the corner and getting lineout etc…but in general you can’t move too far away from well organised and structured rugby otherwise it becomes very messy.
As you said you only have a week to work with the guys, do you have a specific plan for the training sessions on a day-to-day basis?
I don’t think there will be much fitness involved as its at the end of a really long season, they’ll probably be looking forward to their break and you have to make it fun for them and you’ll have a couple of practices during the week but most of it is going to be getting combinations to talk to each other so they understand what each other are doing on the field, its that sort of understanding that helps a team performance. It’s not about the individuals who each play really well for their respective countries it’s about getting this Barbarians team to play well together
So if you were the NZ coach; if you were Graham Henry; how do you think he’d approach playing against the Barbarians?
Their objective will be to win every game on tour. The All Blacks have been the one side that have stuck closest to the Barbarians spirit in terms of the way they played, some times they’ve come unstuck against really good defensive opposition and I think that SA – especially in SA – put them under a lot of pressure so even though they were trying to play a running game the SA defensive system was really good and their kicking game was really good and that’s what allowed them to beat the All Blacks twice. SA didn’t beat the All Blacks by playing better attacking rugby so you have to be quite careful when you play the AB’s they will want you to run the ball and throw it around because that’s the game they really enjoy playing and are very good at it. They won by almost 30 points against Australia in the last game in the Tri Nations and Australia is also quite a free flowing team. It’s really important that you make sure you don’t play a game that favours the other team and even though we are playing Barbarians rugby and we want to make it a good spectacle; I’m a great believer that rugby is a good spectacle when the result is in the balance right until the last minute of the game. Then the spectators are on the edge of their seats and that’s what they want, they don’t want to see a game where it’s over and done and dusted with thirty minutes to go in the game and the one side is 40 points up. You have to keep that in mind when you’re preparing a team.
Will you be making full use of your subs – will everyone get to play or will they be used as replacement for injured players only?
Yes definitely, that’s also part and parcel of every-day professional rugby. You find that in a test match in order to maintain the pace of the game and the pressure that you want to put on your opposition; as soon as players start tiring after 50-60 minutes in key positions, especially the loose forwards and the half backs and one prop and a lock, if you send some fresh legs on it makes a massive difference to maintaining the same level of performance. I’d do it even if it wasn’t the Barbarians but particularly as it is the Barbarians I’d like every guy to get an opportunity to get on the field and enjoy the experience.
Alan Solomons is your Assistant Coach – have you chatted about his coaching experiences with the Barbarians from his unbeaten May tour in 2003 against Scotland, Wales and England?
Yes definitely, I coached with him during our three years together coaching SA, he was my assistant coach then and I’ve kept in contact with him. When I was offered the Barbarians job he was the first guy I thought of giving a call to. I know that he was successful with the 2003 Barbarians side and this will be a great opportunity for us to get together and have a fun week together. I chatted to him about the selections and he’s really looking forward to this challenge as much as I am.
As difficult as this may be do you have a favourite Barbarians player from the past? Or a particular year/game that stands out for you personally?
Not really – I’m not one that likes to pick my favourite players from a game, I’m much more a believer in rugby being a team performance and out of a good team performance you can pick individuals that have done well but no individual will do well unless the team does well. Rugby is the greatest team sport in the world and people should never forget that – I’m not one for picking a “man of the match”; I think rugby beyond any other sport is more how your team performs on the day which allows your team to win or lose. There are just too many players who are fantastic rugby players and as I said its much more about that Barbarians team that beat the All Blacks in 73 than the individual that was so fantastic.
This will be a classic game of rugby with fierce rivals joining forces against the All Blacks at Twickenham. With names like Bryan Habana, Matt Giteau, Mike Phillips, Fourie du Preez and Stirling Mortlock along with Juan Martin Hernandez you have nothing but the making of a super squad that will test the Kiwis to the max.
Saturday 05 December