“We were having some good conversations this week, Warren Gatland and I,” says Rachel Taylor with a laugh. “We were talking about coaching a team to play one you’ve been part of a long time. Welsh women’s rugby has always been close to my heart and it’s going to be a surreal experience to come up against them at the Principality.”
This weekend Gatland, as coach of the Barbarians, is preparing to face the team he managed for 12 years and took to a World Cup semi-final only last month. For Taylor, the connection is even more intense. Coaching the women’s Barbarians in only their third international fixture, the 36-year-old is facing a side with whom she earned 67 caps during her career, a team she also captained. As she says: “I know their game.”
Taylor’s stint with the Baa-Baas means she is currently juggling three jobs, the others being the regional academy skills coach for North Wales Rugby (RGC) and the head coach of Colywn Bay. Both these are in the men’s game and Taylor is the first woman to hold them. But the most progressive aspect of her coaching is less about who she works with and more about how she works with them.
As coach of the Barbarians, Taylor knows her responsibilities: “We’re not going to go far away from the traditions, we’re going to be as exciting and expansive as the conditions will allow.” She also knows the Wales team inside out and will be happy to exploit weaknesses. Yet it is clear she is getting a lot from simply working with such a diverse group of players and understanding how they tick.
“It’s so much more relaxed than the international environment,” she says, “and it’s been interesting to try to get people to loosen up. To play a bit more heads-up and to use what players feel are their strengths. It’s been interesting to see how that develops, who takes leadership and who brings it back to a more structured style.”
Understanding “the whole player”, as she puts it, is key to Taylor’s approach and part of what makes her involvement in the men’s game so intriguing. Working in the women’s game requires a more rounded approach by necessity. Many of the senior athletes have simply not played as much rugby as their male counterparts; tactics, techniques and approaches are learned from the bottom up and questioned at the same time. In the men’s game, however, much is learned in the early years but without necessarily the same understanding as to why. “Interestingly I find they’ll absorb info but not want to know the reason behind it,” she says.
Taylor believes this difference will shrink as more and more girls pick up the sport (last year the Welsh RFU said numbers had risen from 170 in 2015 to 10,000 in 2018). But she notes that a coaching approach that emphasises comprehension is one that benefits both sexes.
“I’ve been fortunate at the RGC as it’s a very young entity and it’s an opportunity to try and create that culture. We’ve tried to mirror and capture everything they’ve done in the women’s game. It just lent itself to trying that thing.
“I’m a massive fan of looking at the psychology behind sport but, interestingly, it’s something that internationally [in the men’s game] there has not been as much time spent on as I’d say is needed. There’s so much emphasis put on skill and technical ability, and player size looked at more frequently, but it needs to be the whole package. There are obviously differences in the men’s game, given the nature of contracts and contact time, but as it develops coaches will have to find different ways of confronting those issues.”
With her many hats and pioneer spirit, Taylor is certainly not short of challenges and that’s the way she wants it. “I like to chuck myself into awkward situations”, she says. “But I like time to reflect on stuff too. The game is changing so much right now, it’s such an exciting time in both the men’s and women’s games. It’s a good environment for a coach. If you’re willing to adapt to it.”