Alana Thomas is the inaugural coach of the Melbourne Rebels Women’s Rugby Union Team. Alana was also awarded the Geoff Shaw Community coach in 2017 and represented the Wallaroos from 2006-2010. Alana shared her thoughts on the growth of the Super W Rugby Union Competition as well as how her coaching has evolved over time and what experiences she had as a player that have helped her in her rugby coaching role. Alanas shares her transitioning from a player to a coach
You made your debut for the Wallaroos in 2006, how did you end up playing Rugby Union?
It was through University, I had just moved to Orange in Country NSW. We were doing some sports in the first couple of weeks, just trying different ones out. A couple of girls saw me playing netball and said do you want to come and try Rugby, I’m not sure if it was my Rugby passing or because I was pegging the ball at girls. I ended up going to Rugby and fell in love with it and the club Orange Emus. They looked after me and I just fell in love with the game and the sport. I played Rugby and Touch when I was younger and any sport really that I could play. That was what you did growing up in a Country Town, if you weren’t playing sport you were on the farm. I played League, then moved to Soccer, went to University and ended up in Rugby Union.
You played for the Wallaroos for four years and then you transitioned into a coaching role. Was this something you knew you always wanted to do or did it just evolve along the way?
It was something that evolved along the way, especially towards the back end of my career. When I came to Melbourne in 2011 I was coming towards the back end of my playing career.
I wanted to stay involved in some way, and give back to the sport. I got some great things out of Rugby, great friends and great opportunities to travel. I wanted to give back and coaching was probably a natural fit for me as playmaker within a team.
I started getting into coaching and doing my lower level accreditation. I was taken on board with the Rugby Victoria coaching pathways and I started to get the passion, the same I had as a player. I was involved and started to want to get better at coaching and be the best that I can. All of a sudden I wanted to go down the pathway of chasing any opportunities that came up in coaching.
When you first started coaching, did you start out coaching men or women?
It was women, I just went down to my local club side and started coaching there with one of the senior coaches who was coaching the women at the time. I then went into the state 7’s program and looking after the girls there. In the past couple of years I have really started to plan to move into Men’s Rugby. This year I am coaching the U15 Victorian Rugby Team and that has been my first transition into boys and mens Rugby. It has been a process, it is definitely eye opening going from both sides, in how you approach it and it is a little bit different. It is definitely something I have enjoyed with the boys this year.
Having playing experience, has that helped your coaching style?
It helped initially, because it did help when you were trying to get messages through, but then I think it has evolved when I started to coach higher levels and started working with more senior coaches and seeing how they do things. I am still evolving my coaching as I go because I am three years into my coaching career, I am still evolving and learning off different people, not just in Rugby but in other sports. I think being a player particulary when you get to high performance level, you can relate to players and you understand the stresses they are under and the things they may be feeling. It is easy to have that conversation with them and that is something I realised, more prominently when I went with the Wallaroos this year, the fact that relating to players and being able to talk them and give them advice because I have had that insight and walked in their shoes and know what the mind is doing.
You were involved in the Wallaroos set up recently, is that the goal to coach at that level?
Definitely, it is a goal. Just like as a player you want to get to the highest level and I had the exposure year and it really did fuel the fire. I went into the camp really nervous, thinking am I going to be able to do this? When I got there I actually felt really comfortable and I thought yeah, I can do this and I need to believe in myself a bit more. That is probably the ultimate goal, I know I have to do the hard work before. At the moment my goals are in Rugby Victoria and if the Wallaroos Coaching comes then it comes. I will just keep working hard and when the opportunities come you have to take them.
From when you were playing with the Wallaroos has the professionalism of the Women’s game change dramatically?
I would say it has. The core elements of when I was there are probably the same, like the way we train. Just a little bit more of the support we now have, there were more staff. Like the S&C, GPS tracking and there is a lot more science now. I think going into that camp from looking at in previous years when I have gone in as a player, I probably feel that it was more high performance and elite. I think that reflects the Super W and just the growth of the game. There are probably more girls now playing rugby and I think a lot of that comes from the exposure we got at the Rio Olympics in 2016.
The quality of rugby, the players are fitter, faster and stronger than what we were. The speed of the game is a lot faster than when I was playing and that is a tribute to the athleticism of the girls playing.
Who were the biggest influences on your playing career and your coaching career?
When I was playing, it was probably my first coach back at the Orange Emus, Dave Cleale. He was passionate about Women’s Rugby. He made everything so enjoyable, because he had a group of girls that had probably never played rugby before. He was one of my first influences and coached me through my career in NSW Country at club level and rep level. Steve Hansen was my first ever NSW Country coach and went on to be my Wallaroos Coach. The way he coached, helped you and his demeanour in how he coached. They were probably the two that had an influence on me as a player.
As I transitioned to a coach, I have Mick Henderson (Melbourne Rebels) who has helped me along my journey and also Michael Magriplis who is in Coach Education and he has encourage me to try and go to the next level and experience more as a coach. They have probably been the biggest influences in just driving me throughout my coaching career.
Where I am now with my coaching, I am lucky I get to talk to other coaches. I always go to Simone McKinnis (Melbourne Vixens Head Coach) and ask for advice, if I have a query on how I need to handle things I will probably talk to her. Just gaining knowledge from other coaches outside of rugby. I look at coaches in other sports and if I get the opportunity to talk to them then I ask questions, taking bits from them of what I think I can work with.
I look to other sports a lot, the skills are what you coach, but is also people management. You are dealing with a generation coming through that has expectation and everything has to happen now. So it is about how to manage them and understanding that in a team environment you aren’t going to have the same personalities and if you do you are probably going to get into trouble at some stage. You need different personalities, and different skill.
You need the emotional intelligence in how to deal with different personalities because some people you can give a spray too, whereas some people you need to build their confidence up. In a team you need to be able to balance that, in terms of team delivery of messages and one on one chats. So going to coaches from other sports and being able to pick their brains on how they manage situations is really important in your development as a coach.
The skill component is there and the game will evolve, but people management is really important particularly because everything is on social media quickly, you have all of those other distractions around. So it is about using the people around you who have been successful in that area that you can tap in to.
From a coaching perspective, when you speak to other coaches, does it build confidence within yourself knowing you are on the right path?
It is a part of it. It is going there to bounce ideas off them, and to get feedback from someone. Not everyone is perfect, you are always evolving. I look at other coaches like Craig Bellamy who is going into a Grand Final. He has been at the Storm for over a decade, but he is always evolving. He goes to other sports and is always travelling to find out what other coaches are using around the world that is leading the way and to try and get the extra edge.
Women’s Rugby has been around for a long time, but this was the first year for Super W. It is an exciting development for Women’s Rugby. Are you proud of the development?
Where we are at now, is a great inception this year. Women’s Sport this year has exploded, we always say how good is the AFLW, but there was W-League and the WNBL before that. Before the Super W the opportunity for girls to play week in week out, and be in a high performance environment has flowed into the Wallaroos and their performance against the Black Ferns in the first test. I think that comes off the back of the girls being in an Elite Environment, playing Rugby each week, having to travel and dealing with things you don’t deal with in a week long tournament. You are treated like a high performance athlete and having to think like a high performance athlete. Doing the one percenters and having to do that over a 3 month period. You are held to a little bit more accountable, you have to perform each week. I think it will only grow and get better and it will start to evolve. Whether that be making it longer or adding teams in, the product will be able to start selling itself.
Do you think the addition of 7’s to Olympics has improved the quality of Rugby in Australia?
I think it has. I was sitting in Melbourne in 2016 watching the 7’s and I had a reporter call from 30W, wanting to talk about Rugby 7’s. All of a sudden a non Rugby state wanted to talk about the 7’s. I think it just showed what Women’s Rugby has and the 7’s product has. I think that helped get girls into the sport, after the Olympics it exploded with school girls wanting to play and it was the major growth area for Rugby and in World Rugby it is the biggest growth area of Womens. The 7’s really set it up because those girls were fantastic and they are great role models and ambassadors for the sport. You think this is fantastic for the sport because you choose between 7’s and 15’s. There are pathways for both forms of the sport. We cater to all sizes of Women, you can be the tall girl or the shorter girl, we can fit you into a team because we need all sorts of shapes and sizes to play Rugby.
Do you think the girls can go back to back at the 2020 Olympics?
I think they can do it. They have a good base of girls and it is now about bringing the young girls through, which the AON 7’s will start to help that, which is another high performance program that will give the girls experience. I think if they have the depth, they can definitely go back to back. New Zealand and Australia are still the top two teams, but you do have the other countries now chasing hard. Australian and New Zealand do still set the standard.
Is there enough depth in Rugby for players to specialise in 7’s or 15’s?
There is some cross-over. In Victoria, you can’t really pick and choose. With the Wallaroos this year we had Mahalia Murphy and Sam Trehearn who played both. There is the capacity to cross over, if you have a player who is playing 15’s and crosses over to 7’s, they can bring a rugby mindset. It would better both if you could have the cross over, because what the girls bring from the 7’s environment is the professionalism, they have been in a high performance environment and when you see them come back into either Wallaroos or Super W, they bring the professionalism and can show the other girls.
First season with the Super W, where would you like to see the competition go?
I think a home and away series, this year playing the four games we definitely improved each game. So being able to play the home and away series, it would be great to see how much you improved. I think down the track definitely adding in more teams, there has been talk of getting New Zealand teams in. World Rugby have talking about getting a Rugby Championship for the girls with the pacific nations.
Down the track there are teams in South Australia, Tasmania and the Australian Defence Force has always been big in Rugby. I also do have a soft spot for NSW Country, but even if we can get the home and away series to really test yourself that will be a great progression and the girls can really test themselves.
[We have spoken to Karina Brown and Kate McCarthy and that has been a consistent theme for the Football codes to have the home and away series, where they can really push themselves and see how they have improved.]
You have worked full time while both playing and coaching, how do you balance working and coaching or playing full time?
It is tough! It isn’t easy. There are girls that do it with kids. It was just about being organised and knowing what you had to do in advance. I was lucky living in a country town, everything was 5 minutes away. It is about planning, having a routine and having your meal plans ready to go. Time management is a skill, I was probably shocking at the start. You need to find what works best for you, I had food always ready in the freezer, I was travelling to get to Sydney so I had to make sure I had rest time in there. It is about planning and when you do need help asking for it, whether that it with your diet, sleep and asking the people around you that can help. I am an accountant by trade so everything is always planned. It is about being able to adapt and change things as you need to. As an athlete particularly when you transition everything is usually structured, but when you finish you have all of this spare time.
What advice would you give to new coaches from your coaching experience so far?
Go out there and have a go. Learn, ask questions and go and watch how other people coach. I think there are things you can take from other coaches, you don’t want to be a carbon copy of another coach so it is important to be yourself, give things a try and if it doesn’t work go and do some self-reflection and tweak how you use different strategies and then go and watch other coaches and see what they are doing whether it be in the warmup, in the session and just meeting coaches. Even just sitting down with a coach for 30 minutes to have a chat. Being open to not being perfect and being open to being challenged and challenging your thoughts.
Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback from other coaches and from players. I do a survey at the end of the program and I ask the girls to give me three things I do well, three things I need to improve on and three things I need to stop. It is an anonymous survey, so they can be honest because it helps me be a better coach, which will then help the girls have a better experience and become better players.
What do you think is important to support your team to play to their potential?
The key thing is being able to know your players, being able to know what makes them tick. It does come back to the emotional intelligence, and knowing how they receive feedback. Understanding what each player needs whether that is a one on one chat at training or before games. Also, having great support staff around them whether it be physios, doctors or nutrition. Having access to those services will help the players get the best out of themselves. At the end of the day I am only the coach teaching them skills, when they get on the field they need to be able to perform. It is giving them the best experience and keeping it simple to what they need to do. Letting them know that you are always there to support them. The biggest thing as player you want to know that you are supported, players know when they have had a bad game, so giving them a spray straight after won’t help. You need to let them process it and then coming back after to review and talk to them about it.
What did you learn as a coach from being in the Wallaroos set up?
It was a fantastic experience, being invited in to work with the girls. There are some great coaches, I learnt a lot off Dwayne (Head Coach) and to be able to watch him coach, I really would of loved to have been coached by him. He is the type of coach that really instills confidence in them and nurtures, and helps them develop. What he has done and programmed the girls to get them to be where they are is amazing. I took a lot out of the camp like how they set up trainings and why the outcome was what it was. That was probably the biggest thing I learnt from watching Dwayne and how organised he was, and the reason why the girls were doing certain things. It was really clear and structured to the outcomes they wanted.
Have you had a chance to implement anything you have learned yet?
Yes, a little bit with the U15 boys. Especially in ways to structure the sessions. Taking things that I think can work with the U15 boys and trying it with them. The main things I have implemented is the organisation and planning of the sessions.
What advice would you give to young athletes with dreams of one day playing in the Super Rugby Competition?
It is just working hard and doing the basic skills right! We always want to kick the goal from the side line or throw a flick pass to score a try. At the end of the day it is about working hard on your core skills, listening to your coaches and taking on board feedback. Feedback isn’t a criticism, if a coach is giving you feedback that is fantastic because some kids don’t get feedback so take it on board, work hard and if you get the opportunity then watch the Rugby on TV. Keep trying and don’t be afraid to ask for help, you do have opportunities through PlayBook to source coaches who can help you. Seek out coaching and ask people for help.