He'd dreamed of a career in professional rugby, both as a player and maybe then a coach. But the disappointment of realising that he wasn't going to make it as a player led Peter Wilkins to walk away from the sport entirely for six years in his early 20s. He even stopped watching.
It was his way of processing the disappointment. Living in London he tried a variety of things, such as editing an online magazine in thinking skills and philosophy for children. “My stepfather is quite prominent in that work and drives a lot of programmes around the world in conferencing and upskilling teachers.”
Wilkins also worked in pubs, did diplomas in editing and sound engineering. “I tried everything under the sun but ultimately never had the passion for any of it.”
The search might have continued too if his mum, Vivienne, and step father, Roger, hadn’t moved from Winchester in Hampshire to Toulouse in the mid 2000s. On a visit there they bought him tickets for a Toulouse-Scarlets game in the opening round of the Heineken Cup in October 2005 at Stade Ernest Wallon. Initially he wasn’t going to go but had his arm twisted.
“It was my first time at a game in Toulouse. They put 50 points on the Scarlets in classic Toulouse style. The drums were playing, the flags were waving and it was just a magnificent occasion.”
Toulouse scored seven tries in a 50-28 win at Stade Ernest Wallon, with Wilkins one of 17,138 people there.
“Without sounding too romantic about the whole thing something stirred in me. I remembered why I loved the game. Not just the occasion around the city and this brand of rugby that Toulouse were playing. I guess it rekindled that fire, and what I could possibly achieve in the game. I mightn’t have done it as a player but I thought there’s no reason I can’t do it as a coach’.”
Wilkins studied the history of Toulouse, how Pierre Villepreux returned to the club and helped it to rediscover its DNA and style of play. He resolved to move to Australia, as he always felt that they overcame their lack of resources and playing numbers with what he calls a high rugby intellect.
“They’re a nation that championed the craft of coaching and their rugby flourished on the back of that.”
Wilkins landed a job in the community department of Queensland Rugby, delivering coaching courses to schools and clubs. His big breakthrough came when Ewen McKenzie, head coach of the Reds and something of a mentor, brought him aboard as their team analyst while he continued coaching at club level.
“I was very fortunate that Ewen supported me and gave me a massive opportunity.”
This morphed into some skills coaching with the Reds, head coach of their As and, when McKenzie moved on to the Waratahs, eventually defence coach under Richie Graham and alongside attack coach Jim McKay, a good mate of Stuart Lancaster's. McKay mentioned in conversation with Wilkins one day that had been heavily influenced by Villepreux as well. "I almost dropped my coffee," laughs Wilkins. He and McKay were in a sense kindred spirits.
“It wasn’t necessarily about playbooks and moves and patterns of play. Certainly Jim had that, but he would talk about flow, about surfing, about patterns of geese flying in the air, all sorts of leftfield stuff, but very creative and very inspiring for players.”
Fast forward to August 2018, Connacht played Brive in pre-season in Villepreux’s home town of Pompadour. “Our host was the man himself, but then that’s the game of rugby,” says Wilkins, who got to shake hands with a legend of French rugby 13 years on from his day of reawakening in Toulouse.
Wilkins’s own “different journey for me” started as a boarder at the unique Christ’s School in West Sussex, a charity school supported by around 650 benefactors and royal patronage which has offered means-tested, and mostly free, education for four centuries.
Sport was his outlet and Wilkins, a backrower, captained the school’s rugby and cricket teams. He went to Sydney to play for Eastern Suburbs, returning a year later to study in Durham University before that rugby hiatus.
Spending the last of his eight years in Queensland as defence coach was his passport back to Europe when offered that role with Edinburgh for two years before Killian Keane offered him the defence job with Connacht. It seemed like a good fit for Wilkins.
“Connacht had a really strong rugby DNA in terms of how they were playing the game, and Pat Lam’s philosophy, but also the identity of the club and the place.”
His first experience of the Sportsground had been with Edinburgh on the day of the 2015 World Cup final, perched in the little coaches’ box at the back of the Clan Terrace.
“Setting out the cones beforehand the ground was empty and we thought no one was coming to the game. By the time we went back inside the dressingroom and came back the place was heaving.
“I guess I saw this passion and local identity, and it resonated with me because I suppose my story has been against the odds, and differently, and not knowing when to give in. Emotionally I felt connected and when the opportunity came up I felt it was somewhere I could contribute towards.”
Over four years on, Wilkins’s kids Oscar (seven) and Harry (nine) have been longer in Barna than anywhere else, bringing home their Irish homework to their Australian mum, Sarah. “It’s a terrific community to be a part of and just adds to the importance of doing well for the place.”
Under Andy Friend, his eighth different head coach in 10 years, Wilkins has expanded his remit to become the senior coach.
He helps to pull the work done by all the specialist coaches into a game plan around forwards, backs, defence, attack and kicking.
“It’s been great having an oversight over such a broad area and I guess what our personality is on the grass. I’ve enjoyed the challenge of that.”
He gives credit for Connacht’s impressive launch plays to Mossy Lawlor, the new assistant attack and skills coach, in providing a platform for their attack. His philosophy is to favour unstructured rugby, to embrace the chaos, but adds: “The teams I’ve been around or coached against who have done that successfully, have really strong principles within that chaos.”
Wilkins no longer wants Connacht to be gallant losers or moral victors, a la Thomond Park last week, a result which heightens the importance of Saturday’s game against Ulster at the Aviva (kick-off 5.15pm).
“It’s an enormous game in any circumstance but particularly when you want to get a foothold in the competition. We have to win and our whole week has been framed around that. That can potentially add pressure and anxiety, or we can really embrace that and get really excited about delivering that.”
He says the players have been blunt and honest in accepting that
They could have “taken that result out of anyone’s hands, but equally maintaining the belief in the way we’re training, playing and reviewing the game, and if we do the results will come.
“Regardless of ticket sales it’s a good opportunity for Connacht to replace some of that income lost during Covid and to play on a big stage is something we’re really excited by, and I’m sure you’ll see that in the performance.”