Rugby

From fourth choice Penrith option to Tahs coach: Why Darren Coleman is thankful for long road to Super Rugby

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You would be forgiven for thinking that Darren Coleman might have been bitter about missing out on the Waratahs coaching job in 2019.

Having started out his coaching journey two decades earlier at the Waratahs as a skills assistant, a position Coleman said he “botched” and didn’t have the “experience nor the skill-set to do it justice”, the career coach believed he had started to crack the code.

He first led Warringah to a drought-breaking Shute Shield victory in 2017 and then started to work his magic at Gordon.

A laughing stock in the competition, Coleman took over the club and almost led them to the finals in his first season in charge in 2019. More was to come.

NSW Waratahs coach Darren Coleman (Photo by Getty Images).

NSW Waratahs coach Darren Coleman says he never thought about giving up coaching despite being overlooked for another Super Rugby job in 2019. Photo: Getty Images

It was quite the turnaround – and it put him firmly in the reckoning to take over from Daryl Gibson when the former All Blacks centre abruptly resigned.

Having turned around the fortunes of two Shute Shield sides, coached at a handful of others in Sydney and had success in Canada and Italy and been to Japan too, Coleman was the peoples’ pick in a state that was crying out for a homegrown coach and someone that represented grassroots and the state’s pathways when the Waratahs narrowed their coaching shortlist.

Instead, NSW Rugby, with their chief executive Andrew Hore hailing from New Zealand, opted for experience and appointed another Kiwi, Rob Penney.

The move, through no fault of Penney’s, went down like a lead balloon.

Making matters worse, Hore resigned days after Penney was announced as the Waratahs’ new coach and the franchise struggled in 2020 and went winless in 2021.

At rock bottom, struggling to attract fans and sponsorships, the Waratahs brutally fired Penney early in 2021 and started the process of finding a new coach. Eventually, they settled on Coleman.

Despite starting slowly, the Waratahs’ pups started to develop with experience and defeated two New Zealand sides in 2022, including the Crusaders at home and the Highlanders across the ditch, to qualify for the finals.

It was quite the turnaround and a win for the grassroots and pathways of NSW rugby and reward for a man who had travelled around the world and eventually landed one of his two dream jobs.

Coleman, however, didn’t once think about giving it away despite missing out on the Waratahs job in 2019.

“No, not really,” the second-year Super Rugby coach told The Roar Rugby podcast.

“I interviewed for that job because I wanted it. I know a few people made a deal of it [missing out]. I probably didn’t have the runs on the board as a professional coach and a professional franchise, particularly in the biggest one, I wasn’t desensitised, I’d been knocked back a million times before that so it was water off a duck’s back.

“I got up every morning and got to work with a motivated team (the LA Giltinis). Had I been younger or less balanced in my thoughts around what made me happy, it could have. But it genuinely doesn’t worry me … if there’s a bunch of guys there that are committed and care about each other and they’re enjoying what they do, I buzz into work.

“It didn’t deter me, I wasn’t bitter with anyone and Rob wore a lot of the pain. He and (former general manager) Timmy Rapp blooded a lot of young kids that I’m benefitting off now.”

Waratahs celebrate

The Waratahs celebrate their astonishing victory over the Crusaders in Sydney in 2022. Photo: Jeremy Ng/Getty Images

Coleman is right.

Penney was dealt a shocking hand when he took over the Waratahs. If anything, the franchise’s failures were entirely predictable giving the shocking list management and planning from the NSW Rugby board.

But Coleman, drawing on the experiences of two decades of coaching, asked for his side to come together and come together they did.

“It probably didn’t sit well with the Waratahs overall as an organisation; we had crappy facilities, we had no Wallabies, we hadn’t won a game and we had a rookie coach, so there was a lot of things and I used it as motivation because no one gave us a shot,” Coleman said.

Put it down to experience, but 20 years earlier Coleman did a similar thing.

Having been thrown in the deep end at the Waratahs by coaching some of Australian rugby’s greats, Coleman, via Canada and Italy, eventually got a call to coach Penrith and went through the phonebook urging players to come down and give his coaching methods a chance.

“It was tough,” Coleman said after being asked about taking over at the now defunct Penrith Emus.

“I ran fourth in the job interview process. The first bloke knocked it back, the second guy had a go and lasted two weeks, the third guy lasted three weeks. I was fourth on the list and they rang me in December, so it was three months after I interviewed that I lobbed there.

“They hadn’t won a game in three years, they had the odd successful run, I was super keen, I had no name but I was keen to give it a shot.

”I remember sitting underneath that grandstand, it must have been 45 degrees Celsius with my shirt off and a fan blowing on me, and I was ringing the registration sheet trying to talk players and locals into coming, saying ‘Just give me one shot, come to one training run and if you like it, stay around, if not, no worries.’

“You really learned how to make do with what you have. We didn’t have great resources, but we got a crew of blokes together and they competed hard and we became mates, and we won six games out of 20 and we got over the top of Gordon. That set me up for my next move and got me a bit of credibility in the game.”

Darren Coleman oversaw the Waratahs’ respect-building 2022. Photo: Matt King/Getty Images

Having won back some respect in 2022, Coleman dreams of filling Allianz Stadium in the same manner that his side managed to pack out the Leichhardt hill.

“I’d like people to give us a chance,” Coleman said.

“Come to one game. Get to that round one.”

Listen to the entire exclusive podcast with Waratahs coach Darren Coleman here.

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