By Emma Darragh
For most New Zealanders, rugby may not be their first association with the Coromandel. Surfing, diving, fishing - yes. Holidays, beaches, boating. Definitely. It may come as some surprise to see such a land-locked sport thriving on fields a stone’s throw away from the world’s most beautiful beaches.
“It’s the juniors coming through that are the strength of New Zealand rugby,” says Whangamata’s Rodney Gilbert. Rodney and brother Errol are keen advocates for rugby on the Coromandel Peninsula. Over the past decade the Gilbert brothers have coached children from rippa rugby through to fifth grade for Whangamata Rugby and Sports Club.
Last winter they coached the Whangamata Under 13’s; a team of nineteen 11-13 year old boys from different local schools, including Errol’s son Kiharoa. It’s an important age in sport, as in life, where having fun and developing discipline really start to meet.
"Rugby at this age gives boys an opportunity to discover who they are, what they’re capable of, and somewhere to bring their energy,” says Errol.
The Gilberts appreciate the significance of their role at this key transition, acknowledging the impact good coaching and positive leadership can have on boys becoming teenagers.
The coaches’ team mantra is ‘Commitment, Discipline and Respect’. The boys hear it, see it, and come to embody it during twice-weekly training sessions and Saturday games.
“It’s all about understanding the attitude of the boys,” says Errol. “Being a coach, you have to be calm. It’s about getting them to understand why they’re here. They’re here to train; to become better players and better people.”
Rodney agrees. “Team sports are a good way to get on a good path, and also to build leadership skills and develop confidence. Rodney’s son Dion was at the transition age when the brothers first joined forces to coach his team back in 2006.
“It makes us happy seeing the boys we’ve coached over the years becoming good men, leading good lives," says Rodney.
Errol and Rodney’s emphasis on team culture is central to their coaching philosophy.
“The boys need to learn ‘it’s not all about me’ - it’s about the team as a whole. Confidence is the biggest thing. It’s all about getting the positive messages through to them, and getting the boys to pull together," they explain, building on each other's ideas.
The men know what they’re talking about when it comes to teamwork. Rodney and Errol are two of five brothers who grew up in Tokoroa and played in the same rugby team since they were small. They played First Fifteen together, then at club level for Melville. In 1989, the Gilberts responded to the pull of their whakapapa, reconnecting with their hapu in Whangamata, and offering a great place to raise their own families. Errol, Rodney and two other Gilbert brothers all played for Whangamata Seniors at one point – “something that has never occurred before or since,” they tell me with wry smiles.
Influenced by their own father’s example, Rodney and Errol stepped up to junior coaching when their sons got involved. With a lifetime of experience playing different positions, the two brothers bring double the skill set to their coaching, with Errol focusing on the forwards, and Rodney training the backs.
"We have respect for each other’s skills. I respect my brother, his knowledge. We see different things.” says Errol. “Ten years ago, our aim was to raise the skills and bridge the gap between junior and high school rugby.”
The brothers say these days rugby is a faster game with a higher skill base. They acknowledge the contribution of Thames Valley Rugby Union; implementing resources and opportunities for junior rugby coaches and players.
All volunteer coaches are familiar with the time coaching takes from work and family life. Errol works two jobs in both Whangamata and Auckland, meaning frequent commutes to meet coaching and work commitments. This season he’s taking a break from coaching, so he can support his younger daughter’s netball games with his wife Morvin. Rodney works locally, and has been grateful his employers allowed adjusted hours and wife Glynnis has supported his commitment to junior coaching.
Despite the sacrifices, their enjoyment of coaching is evident. Rodney says; “I can still learn new things - and relearn things – about the boys and rugby. My son’s 24 now and I’m still learning.”
Errol suggests to be a coach you’ve got to be dedicated and committed, then your players will be dedicated and committed as well. “Respect your players and they will respect you,” he says. “And enjoy the moments.”
Rodney laughs and adds; “Remember they’re not All Blacks! It has got to be fun or they won’t continue. And it would be really neat to see a Whangamata junior become an All Black one day…”
With Errol and Rodney Gilbert creating an ideal environment for junior rugby players to develop commitment, discipline and respect, there’s every chance we will.