JAMES SHANAHAN: A LIFE OF RUGBY

26 Mar 2021

Rugby: it’s my life, my love, my passion. It’s given me my best friends, my wife, my children, my favourite moments in my life. It’s given me my highs and my lows, but the highs have always outweighed the lows. I can close my eyes and remember the first time I picked up a rugby ball, and why I continue to pick up a rugby ball now. That moment when you have 14 mates all involved in the same cause; It’s truly my favourite place. I can remember that 8 year-old boy playing his first game, and that’s how I still feel at 44.

Over this last year, in the rugby wilderness, I’ve taken a lot of time to reflect, think, and over-think, and to repeat this process each time we’ve gone into another lockdown.

For 36 years, rugby has been my passion, my love, my hobby, my release and my job; it has given me my best friends, my wife, my two amazing children (Scarlett and Ciàn) plus my favourite life moments on and off the field. When I played rugby it was my religion, my place of peace, a place where I felt at ease, and being on a rugby pitch is my favourite place to be: it feels natural, it feels like my home.

As I said, rugby has been in my life for 36 years. It all started at North Walsham Rugby Club, a place in deepest darkest Norfolk, about 15 mins north of Norwich in a village called Scottow. My first memory is playing mini rugby v Norwich (basically the OEs for Walsham). Playing at flanker (yes flanker) I scored five tries, and remember seeing my name in the EDP (local paper) – I was hooked! From that day on, I played fly-half and, at times, inside centre. Over those years in the youth section, I used to watch rugby whenever I could: 5 Nations, the touring sides, Bill McLaren Videos (101 Greatest Tries, Another 101 Greatest Tries, Bill’s Best Bits), and then try and re-enact with my mates on a Sunday morning. My favourite was watching the ’84 Touring Wallaby team that contained Mark Ella and David Campese – my favourite player of all time: for me, watching these guys play rugby was another level. I still watch those clips of that touring team and the ’88 side now, via YouTube.

Once I reached 17, I was introduced to men’s rugby: it felt easy, always has, it’s my happy place. And off the field – wow! – my eyes were opened and my love for the game was taken to another level: the bond, the nights out, the laughs, the friendships, the songs, the rugby drinking games – some were hilarious! That five years of senior rugby at North Walsham shaped me into the person, player and coach that I am (so you can blame them…!).

Recently, I lost a close friend who was part of that era, and it shook all of us, but the memories it brought back have produced so many laughs: it reminded us all of the bond we had in those years. I don’t call them ‘ex’ team mates – they are still my team mates and, once this dreadful year has passed and we get back to normal, a celebration will be had for my fallen team mate, with my team mates.

Then came professional rugby (what… I can earn money from rugby..?! Sounds good! Where do I sign..?!!). Luckily for me, Bedford Blues came calling – they had just been relegated from the Premiership and I thought I might as well give it a go. Not sure how good I’d be and how much I’d play, I remember rocking up to first session feeling very nervous – I’m a naturally very shy and reserved person, happy in my own company, but once I step onto a rugby pitch my personality changes. Again, because it’s my happy place, the shyness goes, and the confident figure arrives. Whenever I’ve gone to a new club, I’d let my ability do the talking. Then, once settled, I’d be the bossy 10 telling everyone what to do. I loved my time at Bedford (I must have done – I still live there), and it’s where I met my wife Hannah, a young media girl at the time. Luckily, she’s always been mad about rugby (although less so now I’ve out-rugbyed her!) – she was Bedford’s first ball girl. From the first meeting we hit it off, but more as friends as I still had a girlfriend, and Hannah hadn’t admitted to herself she was mad about me (!!). It wasn’t until end of my first season, when we sang a karaoke duet (‘Kids’ by Robbie and Kylie), that she realised she was hooked (I had been on a three-day session, and that’s the only way I was singing in front of a load of people – my voice is truly awful…). We have been together from that point on – poor girl: 20 years!!!

After Bedford came my tour of the South West. I played for Plymouth, Exeter and Cornish Pirates in an 18-month period. Unfortunately in professional sport, sometimes things don’t work out – the style of play at Plymouth wasn’t for me: I loved off the field with the players, but hated on the field. Playing at 12 and touching the ball a couple of times a game wasn’t for me. Exeter came calling on a short-term deal to cover injured players, which was a great experience: ten games and nine tries (including a length-of-the-field intercept!!), I played six games on the wing (!!), three at 13 and one at 12. As I said, it was only a short-term contract as they had players coming back from injury, so I went further south to Penzance. Cornwall in the summer – what a place! In Penzance it’s all about the rugby club. Again, things didn’t work out how I wanted, and I didn’t really see where the team was going with the coaching. If I’m honest, the coaching during my time in full-time rugby has been truly awful, but it all helped me massively in shaping my coaching style and philosophy. My best coaches were at North Walsham. But can talk more about my coaching later…

From Penzance, my agent sorted me a deal in Italy playing for Overmach Parma in their Top League. What a great two years that was: the people, the food, the weather and the culture were amazing. And, to be fair, I loved my rugby playing in Italy. They actually had some very good coaches, although three-hour sessions in 35 degrees heat isn’t great for a ginger… but apart from that I loved it! Imagine flying into Rome on a Saturday morning, playing a game in the afternoon, and then having a beer sitting next to the Coliseum that night. Just ‘Wow’!

I had always wanted to get into coaching once my playing days were over and, in my head, I felt I would drop down a level or two around 32ish and become a player coach. But, in 2005 at the age of 28, I got a call from a good friend saying Cambridge were looking to sign a player coach, and asked if I was keen. At that time, I was about to sign another year in Italy, and wasn’t really interested, but I agreed to meet with Jerry Otter (the club’s Chairman and main benefactor), and he shared with me the dream: they wanted to be a Level 2 club. They were at Level 5 at the time, but he had the ambition, the drive, and the money, and had assembled a decent squad (many were team mates from playing days at Bedford). Whenever I sign for a club it’s because I can see a journey, an ambition, a challenge – mine was to get Cambridge into the Championship within five seasons. I learnt so much over that period of four and half years about my coaching, and it was a great choice to start at 28 and not 32. In my fourth year, we were within points difference of going into the Championship. That year we finished second. And that year, about 11 games in, the RFU decided to only promote one team, not two. Classic RFU, and very frustrating.

I left Cambridge in my fifth season, after several personnel changes, and OAs came calling. Again, it was a club that wanted higher level rugby. OAs is a great club: good people, great ground, a real family club. My family have always been very welcomed, and we had six great seasons (four years and then a further two). We went from London 1 to National 1 and a fourth place finish in the first four years which, for the budget we had, was a great achievement.

Of course, being an ambitious coach, I’ve always wanted to coach in a full-time environment, and I was given that opportunity at Plymouth Albion. I knew this was be my biggest challenge: with no money, and players that weren’t Championship standard, it was always going to be tough – a club in the decline, but I felt I could change that. My first season was a great success: we finished eighth in the Championship, which was highest they had ever finished, and got to the quarter-final of the B&I Cup – again, a first. However, many of the players I had found and signed were getting picked off by bigger clubs, getting twice the amount of money – it meant that I lost ten players in off-season. It also meant finding young upcoming players again to rebuild a squad I had already rebuilt. Unfortunately, my second season wasn’t a success, and it was my darkest time in rugby. For various reasons, it actually made me want to leave rugby, which isn’t me. Thankfully I got the love of the game back again when I returned to OAs: a great couple of years, and back into National 1.

It was at that point Russell Ticehurst made contact with me through Markus Burcham. I had coached Burch for England Counties, and he somehow felt I was decent! After my first chat with Russell and Ridgy, I knew Blackheath was a place I wanted to be: a club with huge history, a club that need guidance on the pitch. It was a challenge, and I always go where I’ll be challenged. Slowly but surely, we are getting to where Russell and I want the squad. I feel we have underachieved at times, but it’s taken time for the players to get an understanding of what I want, and also what they want and need. I feel the last full season (not the Covid one) was the year we should have won the league: I thought we had a very strong squad and they had been with me for three seasons. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the case, BUT I feel the squad we have in place for next season is the strongest we have ever had. If we keep this squad for 2021-22 season it’s a year we need to be talking about promotion. I think often teams shy away from it as they don’t want the pressure, or it’s looked on as being arrogant. Well, I think we need to talk about it. I know every team wants to beat us. We are Blackheath – the oldest club in the world: every team has wanted to beat us since 1858, no matter if we are wanting promotion or not. I know this first-hand: when coaching against Club, it was a game I loved winning, and a game I wanted too. Every team raises it game. We should look forward to that challenge and thrive, not hide. My goal is for Blackheath to be the top part time side in England within the next three years (somebody tell Russell to sort out my contract…!).

During the last 8 years I’ve also had roles as England Counties Head Coach, and at Cambridge University, and both roles have been amazing experiences. England Counties is such a great side to be involved in – the chance for the community rugby player to wear the Rose, something they’d never have a chance to do for the full side: to get to play against Ireland, France and Scotland has been amazing. Incredible trips to Canada, Romania, Georgia and Spain, but playing Ireland away in Cork on St Patrick’s day, and winning, was probably biggest highlight in my six seasons and 22 games in charge (winning 20 – not a bad record). Great times.

Currently, I still coach CURUFC and we are preparing for a July Varsity match (if Covid permits, which is looking promising). It’s been a great seven seasons working with the highly intelligent players of Cambridge, although common sense isn’t so common at Cambridge..!

To have coached two of the most historic and famous clubs in the world, I feel truly privileged. To have played over 600 games of rugby, coached many sides and represented the Barbarians. To have played against the World Cup winning Aussies of 99’ for England XV…

When anyone asks what rugby means to me, this is what I’ve said before:

“Rugby: it’s my life, my love, my passion. It’s given me my best friends, my wife, my children, my favourite moments in my life. It’s given me my highs and my lows, but the highs have always outweighed the lows. I can close my eyes and remember the first time I picked up a rugby ball, and why I continue to pick up a rugby ball. That moment when you have 14 mates all involved in the same cause. It’s truly my favourite place. I can remember that 8 year-old boy playing his first game, and that’s how I still feel at 44.”

I feel pretty happy so far. More to come though, that’s for sure.

JAMES SHANAHAN, HEAD COACH, BLACKHEATH RUGBY

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