Noel McNamara heads for South Africa on two-year coaching deal with Sharks

‘Just getting back on the grass was the main motivation for me’, says former Clongowes man

Noel McNamara wrote two resignation letters in recent weeks, one to Clongowes Wood College and the other to Leinster Rugby thereby removing the safety net of a permanent and pensionable position as a schoolteacher and foregoing the role of academy manager overseeing one of the best talent production lines in world rugby.

A confluence of events nudged him to change vocation; a journey that began all those years ago as an "accidental rugby coach" in Glenstal Abbey will take him to South Africa. McNamara has agreed a two- year contract as backs/attack coach with the Sharks rugby franchise and will move to Durban with his wife Sinead and three young daughters.

With his career break from Clongowes coming to an end, the Clare native examined an inventory of options, one of which was the position with the Sharks. IRFU performance director David Nucifora, a supportive influence, had conveyed the offer from South Africa.

McNamara sought the counsel of others, his wife Sinead first and foremost, with regard to the prospect of once again uprooting the family – they had moved to New Zealand for four months previously when he enjoyed a short term contract with the North Harbour club – and armed with that support initiated more rugby centric conversations.

He spoke to several people in Leinster rugby including Leo Cullen, Nucifora, South African Allan Temple Jones once of the IRFU Sevens programme and now head of strength and conditioning at the Sharks, former Irish international and current Springboks backs' coach Felix Jones and to the Sharks head coach Sean Everitt. But arguably the most important 'conversation' was an internal monologue.

“The main thing was that I wanted to get back coaching, I really missed the [Irish] 20s. That was something that I had got my teeth into over the course of the last three years. Whilst I loved my role in Leinster, probably just getting back on the grass was the main motivation for me,” McNamara admitted.

He recalled a conversation with Les Kiss. The former Ireland assistant coach had been instrumental in McNamara's development as a coach, telling him: "'You have to get rid of the safety net.' It had always been there. Writing the resignation letter for the school was a big moment. I had never set out with the ambition of wanting to be a professional coach."

Successful process

McNamara had no background in the sport. Raised in the GAA heartlands of O'Callaghan's Mills, his first love was soccer, thereafter with a nod to GAA, tennis, golf and badminton. It wasn't until the late PJ Smyth in the University of Limerick, where he studied PE and Maths, and Denis Hooper in Glenstal Abbey that he became acquainted with rugby as a coach. It was to prove a mutually beneficial relationship.

“I wanted to coach, be fully immersed in a team to make sure that we could be the best that we could possibly be. That has always been my philosophy [more so than being] motivated by trophies; it’s far more about the process, being the best version of ourselves and greater than the sum of the parts.

“If you get too obsessed with that [trophies] you come unstuck. Try to get a handle on getting better and then get busy getting better.”

It's a successful process, one that has been endorsed by silverware – Schools Seniors Cups (Clongowes), a Grand Slam (Ireland U-20s), British & Irish and Celtic Cups (Leinster A) – as well as coaching other age-grade teams at provincial and national level.

Presiding over the Leinster academy was a rewarding role with excellent job satisfaction in watching the best and the brightest amateur talent graduate to professional sport. When he was pondering whether to take the Sharks job McNamara was reminded of his own exhortations to his young charges.

“I am telling all these guys that you have to look at the next challenge. It’s not about looking into the academy, it’s looking out of the academy and graduating to be a professional player. It is not about playing for Leinster once; it’s about playing for Ireland.

“When I was a third year head in Clongowes [I remember] telling pupils ‘make your obsession your profession,’ to not be afraid of taking risks and making brave choices. That resonated with me [latterly], that I was giving all this advice and [perhaps] I should take it myself.

“I have got a pretty resilient wife and family who are supportive in all of this. It wasn’t about a vanity project that I had to be a professional coach. We felt that this was more a great opportunity, a great life experience for the girls and felt it was just right.”

McNamara’s time at North Harbour definitely whetted his appetite. “I learnt quite a bit over there about lots of different things. It certainly would have had an influence on me. The improvement (in me as a coach) over that four month period was pretty significant.

"I heard Eddie Jones recently talk about going to coach in Japan because he felt that the break between tournaments was too great. That probably resonated with me a little bit. Finishing with the 20s, [I realised] I just needed to coach [again]; I want to get better. The only way to do that is to do that."

Felix Jones (Springboks), Ronan O'Gara (La Rochelle), Mike Prendergast (Racing 92) and Jerry Flannery (Harlequins) are just a few of the names that crop up in conversation when discussing how Irish coaches are valued in a global context. Working in diverse rugby cultures develops better coaches.

McNamara said: "I have been very lucky in Leinster with Leo [Cullen] and Stuart [Lancaster] in particular. I have also been lucky with the IRFU; Joe Schmidt would have been very generous with his time, so too Andy Farrell. You get an opportunity to learn from really good coaches.

“There is real collegiality in the coaching set-up in Ireland. I do think there is recognition that Irish coaches have a lot to offer. There has definitely been a shift. When I spoke to [Sharks head coach] Sean Everitt initially explained that they were looking for someone from the northern hemisphere but specifically Irish coaches because they tended to make the most of teams and players they coached.”

‘Definitely exciting’

In Everitt, McNamara saw a like-minded soul, someone who had come through coaching the underage teams at the Sharks to take on the assistant and now head coach's duties. Oh, and Everitt was once coached by Gerry Murphy, the former Ireland coach and development manager in Leinster.

There were other similarities. The Sharks are the major contributors to the Springboks’ squad, much like Leinster in an Irish context. It puts a greater stress on the playing roster and on the coaches to nurture and develop the younger generation and in the case of the Sharks while playing Currie Cup presently and then into the United Rugby Championship.

The fixture list for the tournament has yet to be confirmed but McNamara smiled when broaching the subject of playing against the Irish provinces. "The challenge of welcoming Leinster to Durban or playing in Thomond Park against Munster or whatever it might be is definitely exciting."

There is no rugby prenup, one declaring that on McNamara’s return to Ireland previous rights and privileges would be automatically reinstated. “No, no (there are) strings attached. I have to stand on my own two feet; I can’t be relying on the IRFU to help in the future.

“It’s the end of the beginning. I am ambitious. I want to coach at the highest level and would love at some point to be back in Ireland and coaching. Who knows what the future holds? Certainly for the moment the focus is on Durban.”

He joins a growing coterie of young Irish coaches whose exposure to global rugby cultures may one day benefit Irish rugby in one capacity or another.

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer