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Sport The Danny Wilson interview: My baptism of fire at Cardiff Blues and the clashes with Gethin Jenkins that taught me so much

23:45  16 october  2020
23:45  16 october  2020 Source:   walesonline.co.uk

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Ask Danny Wilson to sum up his time with Cardiff Blues and he replies with a few key words.

One of them is “Bilbao” and the others are “good people”.

The man from Weston-Super-Mare spent three years as head coach at the Arms Park,

It was a spell not without its challenges, but one which culminated in unforgettable fashion with the European Challenge Cup final victory over Gloucester at Bilbao’s San Mamés Stadium in May 2018.

On leaving the Blues, Wilson took up the post of Scotland’s forwards coach and is now head coach at Glasgow.

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He’s just come off the back of a victory over the Scarlets and will be returning to Wales next week for a meeting with the Ospreys at the Liberty Stadium.

When I caught up with him for a chat, it was clear he looks back on his time at the Blues with real fondness and as a formative period in his career.

Prior to taking the helm in 2015, his club career had primarily been spent as an assistant, with the Dragons, Scarlets and Bristol, along with a stint in charge of Wales U20s.

So stepping into the hot seat at the Arms Park brought new challenges.

“I got a wake-up call as to what it is to head coach at that level,” he admits.

“I have always been strongly opinionated around the game and I went in there with the wrong approach to start with.

“I went in there trying to be the boss too much.

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“You have got people like Gethin Jenkins, Sam Warburton, Matthew Rees, Gareth Anscombe, the list goes on, experienced pros who I didn’t probably consult enough.

“I went in to put my own stamp on it.

“But what I learned quite quickly is there was a culture there that needed to be understood and respected, a Welsh culture, a Cardiff Blues culture.

“It doesn’t mean all of that was good and needed to stay.

“But what I learned, after a period of time, was the process of stop, start, continue - what needs to stop, what needs to start and what needs to continue.

“The continue bit is important because you’ve got to recognise there are good things in environments.

“I probably clashed a bit with the likes of Gethin when I first went in there.

“But I soon watched and realised what a warrior he was, what a good leader he was and how desperate he was to win.

“I realised that most of what he was willing to say to me and argue with me about was about winning. That was his motive.

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Gethin Jenkins standing next to a football ball: Danny Wilson alongside Gethin Jenkins during their time together at Cardiff Blues © Ben Evans/Huw Evans Agency Danny Wilson alongside Gethin Jenkins during their time together at Cardiff Blues

“I developed a much better understanding of the group of senior players there and built a better relationship with them and we became much, much closer. They taught me a lot.

“A huge part of the success we achieved was the tightness and togetherness we had as a squad and that was built on shared leadership.”

Wilson continues: “It’s a club I was really passionate about, having been at University in Cardiff and lived in the city.

“I went there with a three year project. Year one was tough, no doubt about that, year two we made big strides and ticked a lot of the boxes that we wanted to.

“Then Year three, the icing on the cake, we over-achieved a little bit and won a trophy and achieved all the goals we set ourselves.”

That trophy was secured in stirring fashion as the Blues turned around a 20-6 half-time deficit to beat Gloucester 31-30 in the Challenge Cup final, with Gareth Anscombe landing a last-minute match-winning penalty.

“I was thinking about this the other day, you go through a lot of tough times in rugby,” said Wilson.

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“Every single player and coach out there does, whether it’s injuries or bad results.

“You put a huge amount of work into it, all of us do.

“So when you get those days, those one-off really special days, it makes it all worthwhile. You do savour it.

“That final in Bilbao is probably my most memorable day in rugby. It was unbelievable.

“We had a game-plan for the first-half, but Gloucester had adjusted and changed their way of playing, so we had to change.

“I remember coming into the dressing room at half-time and the players were already on top of it.

“That was when we knew we had got somewhere. Our players, our leaders were speaking and they had made the changes we were going to make, so we were very much on the same page.

“Then the second half performance was outstanding really.

“Everything kind of clicked into place and then to finish the way we did.

“It was an unbelievable kick, but nothing surprised me with Gareth because he’s a quality rugby player and a very strong-minded man, let’s say.

“Lloyd Williams booting the ball into the stand for the final whistle was a massive moment. It was big for a lot of us.

“I remember Nick Williams, a man of his calibre in terms of a player, telling me that was the first big trophy he had won and you don’t really think about that.

“For a lot of boys, it was a really big day and it was a nice way to finish and a great experience.

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“We won some silverware, which hadn’t been done for a while. It’s all about the memories you create with those people.”

So what time did he get to bed that night?

“Really good question! I think it was a case of a couple of hours' sleep.

“I remember Gafyn Cooper, the team manager, slept with the trophy that night. He properly looked after it.

“Then it was on to the next morning, to breakfast and beers. We had the day there as a group on the Saturday, which was a brilliant day.

“Everybody celebrated and we came back on the Sunday, which made it an even better trip.

“The fact you had your families there and that everybody went was massive. Everybody was part of it. It was done well.”

Looking back, Wilson feels the foundations for that triumph were laid during the challenging periods of his tenure.

“You always seem to get closer or tighter through adversity and that certainly happened at the Blues,” he said.

“That tightness was the foundation for us being successful.

“We took a bit of pain in year one and two when we brought some young players through.

“But then we went to a final with Jarrod Evans playing 10, Owen Lane on the wing, Garyn Smith coming off the bench having a key moment in that game.

“Come that final, we had a good balance of youth, experience and some good overseas signings, in the likes of Nick Williams, Rey Lee Lo, Willis Halaholo and Blaine Scully.

“I had a great relationship with staff and players, mates more than anything.

“When you get that and that clicks, it gives you the ability to be tight and get through the tough times and go on to do something, which we did in Bilbao.

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“It’s the best day in rugby I’ve had.”

Reflecting overall on his three years in Cardiff, he said: “I learned a huge amount during that period.

“It was a baptism of fire for me as a coach. It was character-building.

“It’s one of the fondest memories and fondest times I’ve had in rugby definitely and also, at times, one of the most difficult.

“But, above all, it was about good people. That was the important bit.

“We became really tight as a group and I have maintained a lot of those relationships.

“I still speak with a lot of those players now and I miss huge parts of that time.

“It finished on a high, which was great, and you move on to other pastures.”

Wilson had decided half way through his final season - months before Bilbao - that it would be his last at the Arms Park.

With the benefit of hindsight, does he have any regrets over that?

“It was a tough decision to make,” he said.

“You know my feelings, I was pretty passionate about Cardiff Blues and the people there.

“I’m really pleased we finished on a high and I certainly miss the relationships I had with a lot of those people.

“The supporters were fantastic too. The Arms Park for a home fixture was something else.

a man holding a football ball on a field: Danny Wilson thanks the crowd at full time © Huw Evans Picture Agency Danny Wilson thanks the crowd at full time

“They were great memories and I do look back fondly on that time.

“But, for a number of reasons, it was the right decision and the right time to go.”

Wilson had initially been expected to take up a role with Dai Young’s Wasps, but in the end he became part of the Scottish management.

Following two years as an assistant to Gregor Townsend, he has now struck out on his own again at the helm of Glasgow, replacing the Wallabies-bound Dave Rennie as head coach.

“I came out of the Blues and got a very late and off-the-cuff opportunity with Scotland,” he said.

“After the World Cup, it was known Dave was leaving Glasgow and they asked me if I was interested in going back to head coaching and I said I would love to.

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“I learned a lot from Gregor and international rugby.

“But I wanted to get back to head coaching, to making my own decisions and running my own ship.

“It’s great to be getting back to week-in, week-out rugby.

“International rugby hits you in waves. You have nothing for a period of time, a real lull, you are just watching games and then you get this real intense period where it hits you really hard.”

Wilson is aware that he will have to convince a few doubters over the coming weeks and months.

“I wasn’t a popular replacement, when you are going from a guy of Dave’s calibre to a guy of my name,” he said.

“So there were questions around that.

“But I have had to earn everything I have had in the game over the long haul.

“I have worked with a lot of the Glasgow players before, through Scotland, and I have good relationships with them.

“You know me, I am about a shared leadership model.

“So it’s important those things are strong.

“As a coach, you set your negotiables and your non-negotiables.

“There are certain things that are non-negotiable that I am making decisions on and I ask to be respected.

“Then there are the negotiable things that players can drive and therefore they are a huge part of running the environment.

“They have an opinion and a say, which is where that shared leadership kicks in.”

Bit by bit, Wilson is laying his imprint on Glasgow, as demonstrated by a pragmatic performance which earned a 20-9 Guinness PRO14 victory over the Scarlets last Sunday.

“I thought we tactically game-planned them really well in the first hour,” he said.

“We strangled them in areas we wanted to and didn’t feed the chaos game they are so good at.

“So I was really pleased, but then in the last 20 minutes we became a penalty machine and two yellow cards let them back into the game.

“But, ultimately, beating a good fully-loaded Scarlets is a good win, so I’m happy with that. It was an important result.”

Next up, it’s more Welsh opposition in the shape of the Ospreys a week on Saturday, as Wilson begins a testing period with a depleted squad.

“I have lost 14 players to Scotland and two to Fiji,” he said.

“We’re going into a challenging patch of rugby where we are going to be using a very different group of players, but it’s a chance to look at the next crop and the youngsters coming through.”

Then next month comes another trip to Wales to take on old friends - Cardiff Blues.

“It will be a strange occasion, but one I will look forward to,” said the 44-year-old.

“I’ve got very fond memories of my time at the Blues and it’s nice to think back.”

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