John Plumtree the rugby nomad moving Ireland along nicely

Life on the road is good but the Irish forwards’ coach misses his home comforts

Forwards coach John Plumtree. Photograph: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Forwards coach John Plumtree. Photograph: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

 

By his own admission, John Plumtree is “a bit of a rugby nomad”. It’s the Kiwi way, be it as a player and/or a coach, and so Plumtree has already spent 15 years of his life in South Africa, from where he came directly to Ireland as forwards coach in September. So nomadic has his life been that his father has still yet to see his third and youngest son Troy, who is seven.

Even though his dad, Peter, is a contented dairy farmer who, by contrast, is not inclined to travel, this is something Plumtree admits to a tad sheepishly, and he intends to rectify it after the June tour to Argentina, even if that is in the midst of a New Zealand winter.

It’s his first Six Nations and he’s picked a good one, although the intensity of the tournament has taken him aback a little. Compared to the more drawn out nature of Super Rugby, with a month on the road and maybe a month at home, the repetition of two nights away, one night at home, and often not unpacking bags, has been another adjustment.

“We are looking forward to the end of the Six Nations so that we can have a look around Ireland and have a bit of a holiday. It has been a real change for us in terms of pretty much everything; the culture, the weather, everything has been massive since we’ve left Durban so I wouldn’t say it has been easy by any means but it has really pulled our family closer together.”

Not having their customary network of friends, their social life has taken a bit of a hit, as he describes it. “But that will happen. We’ll get to know more people socially and the barbecue will go on soon and the beers will come out.”

Away from rugby he used to enjoy spear fishing in New Zealand. “But in South Africa I didn’t do a lot because obviously the sharks and stuff used to bother me.” He also has a good mountain bike. “But if it’s less than 10, if it’s seven degrees, it’s too cold for me mate!”

Been rewarding
Watching the way the squad has grown has been rewarding, as has working with Joe Schmidt and Less Kiss, and the players. “The players are real humble boys, for household names in Ireland and some household names around the world. They’re really easy to deal with. They’ve got really good work ethics.

“In South Africa you’ve got bigger men so getting go-forward can be a bit blunter in getting across that advantage line with the different characters that I had at the Sharks. But I’ve been really impressed with the way that Joe structures the attack for us to get momentum.”

Although he watched some Six Nations games growing up in New Zealand and then when playing much of his career in South Africa, his coaching stint at Swansea, from 1997 to 2001, enabled him to become more acquainted with the Six Nations, even standing on the Lansdowne Road terraces behind the goal for an Ireland-Wales game in 1998.

He and his wife Lara, from Durban, have three boys, the Welsh-born eldest two of Reece (15) and Taine (14), and South African-born Troy. “They have pretty much been brought up in a changing room, be it Swansea, Wellington or Durban. They’ve sat on many a famous rugby player’s knees, and they love it.” Reece has been playing on the Blackrock schools junior cup team while Taine is itching for the cricket season.

Plumtree’s dad, Peter, was also more of a cricketer, as was his older brother Paul, and both played for Taranaki, although his uncle Murray Wills – brother of his mum Catherine – played for and toured with the All Blacks with Colin Meads in 1967. “He was an All Black and that was a big thing in my eyes so I looked up to him.”

Both his father and his aforementioned uncle were dairy farmers. “We were lucky in that we were taught to work pretty young. We had a lot of chores, and sport has always played a big part of our lives. I was brought up in a family environment where there was always plenty of food and plenty of work, and also my mum and dad never held me back.

‘Encouraged me’
“They always encouraged me to use my rugby as a bit of a vehicle, although as much as it’s been fun for me, it’s been sad that we’ve spent a lot of time away from home and our family is quite close.”

He started playing rugby at around six years old in Hawera High School, along with cricket in the summer, and was playing flanker for Taranaki by the age of 18. “Rugby was tough in those days. It was pretty physical, and there was no such thing as a citing commissioner.”

He left Taranaki for Durban and Natal when he was 22. “I didn’t want to get caught up in a small town life. I really wanted to get out and I could see rugby was going to be an opportunity for me to do that.”

He had played in an All Blacks trial in 1989 in Palmerston North, but as he was competing with Michael Jones, Zinzan Brooke and Michael Brewer, has no regrets. “I didn’t realistically think I’d ever be an All Black.”

Initially going to Durban for a short spell, meeting Lara and being brought into the Natal Sharks set-up by Ian Macintosh changed all that. An offloading linkman and also big and physical, Plumtree played for the South African Sevens and won four Currie Cups.

Plumtree had no aspirations toward being a coach, but the Swansea committee came to South Africa in 1997 to take in the Lions tour and some of them stayed in Plumtree’s house through a mutual friend, and after returning to Wales phoned Plumtree to ask if he’d be interested in becoming their head coach.

“I said: ‘I don’t really know anything about coaching but I guess I could learn.’ they were keen on me to basically bring the Natal structures to Swansea.” He introduced day-time and indoor training, and brought in Clive Griffiths from rugby league, from whom he learned more about defence.

“After four years in Wales I went home to New Zealand and that was my real opportunity to grow as a coach. The New Zealand rugby union is good at upskilling its coaches.” He spent some time as a video analyst with the All Blacks under John Mitchell and Robbie Deans, and was then given the job as head coach of the Wellington Lions for five years. In 2007 he moved to the Natal Sharks as an assistant coach to Dick Muir, taking over as head coach for the 2008 Currie Cup when he helped them bridge the gap to the last of their four titles in his playing days, and repeated the feat in 2010.

Inspired form
He guided the Sharks to the Super 15 final in 2012, with Freddie Michalak in inspired form, whereupon John Smit, the former Sharks and Springboks captain, was appointed CEO and unbeknown to Plumtree, set about installing Brendan Venter as his replacement. Plumtree learned of his fate through the media, as the story rumbled for weeks before he was formally told, and was clearly embittered by the experience.

“John Smit decided to change the coach and that was fine but it was done really sloppily. It was a media frenzy and the whole thing fell pretty sour. I didn’t leave on a good note which was upsetting. So when Joe got hold of me about the Ireland opportunity I jumped at it really because I wanted to get out of South Africa. I had a lot of respect for him when I was coaching in New Zealand and when I was coaching Super rugby, and when I heard Les (Kiss) was here as well that was a carrot for me. New Zealand is still where I want to go but Ireland is an opportunity that I couldn’t turn down.”

Plumtree respects Schmidt hugely and admires his passion for the game, but also his passion for things outside rugby, as some balance is important. He also enjoys sharing interests outside of rugby with the players, who he hopes find him fairly relaxed, but admits “I do get annoyed if I see forwards not performing how I want them to in terms of how we’ve prepped, or the physical nature of the game.

“I think every forward pack that I’ve coached through my life has always had a real physical edge to it; Wellington, the Sharks, or the Ireland side now and that’s the legacy I want to leave, the Irish forward pack is not only smart but it’s physical and it’s a formidable opponent.”

In this, he cites leadership figures such as Paul O’Connell as key, which brings us to Brian O’Driscoll. “I’m lucky that I’ve been able to spend some time with him because I can tell my kids and my mates what Brian O’Driscoll is like and that’s fantastic for me because he is such a humble character and we are all going to miss him. I guess Saturday a lot of people all over the world will be watching Brian O’Driscoll’s last game in Ireland.”

No harm in Plumtree’s mind. “That emotion,” he says, “will be good for the game.”