To prove it’s a proper rugby club, an RFU shield hangs on the door of the repurposed garden shed. It’s not the most obvious place to find the country’s most capped coaching team, but then a lot of great things are built in sheds.
And we are talking about a garden shed here. A proper one, right down to its wood-panelled walls, and limited dimensions designed to house old lawnmowers, rusty garden tools, bin bags of clothing and artefacts of hobbies long since abandoned.
The town the shed calls home is Chesham, which is pleasant enough. Surrounded by farmland, it resides in Buckinghamshire’s Chess Valley and has enough good pubs to entice walkers from the nearby Chiltern Hills. If the rompers stay long enough in Chesham, they’d learn it’s famous for four ‘Bs’: brushes, beer, boots and Baptists. The museum even goes so far as to add ‘bricks’ to the alliteration game, although that feels like a step too far. Either way, it’s got its bases covered.
Not beginning with ‘B’, but trying to add itself to the reasons to visit/live in Chesham is rugby.
Chesham RFC ply their trade in the Wadworth 6X Berks/Bucks & Oxon Premier Division. Or, if you’re not up with your grassroots English rugby pyramid, that’s level eight. This is the highest division they’ve played in thanks to a promotion two years ago. And, right now (well, at the time of writing), they sit fourth, having beaten table toppers Wheatley, Abington and Bletchley, but lost 3-0 to Littlemore. They should have won. They expect to win every game and indeed promotion too. If not this year, certainly next. Which, considering this is a club that pours its pints in a place made for plant pots, seems a tad optimistic.
It’s only when you go to one of their training sessions that you see why. It’s not just the drills they run that seem a touch slicker than you expect at this level. It’s not even the fact the coaching duo in charge seem remarkably balanced in their roles – there’s no alpha coach here, dominating a session, barking orders and admonishing every mistake.
Instead, there’s crisp-clear instruction – never talking over each other, always in turn. There’s high-level technical tweaking of body positions, running lines, and even hip movement. When codes are called, there’s instant recognition and execution – it’s all very synchronised. But, perhaps the most telling of the coaching’s obvious abilities, is the constant questioning. It’s what you’ll hear at top clubs across the country in modern day rugby as they attempt to empower players to make decisions by actually understanding why they’re doing things: ‘Why do we do this?’ ‘Why should you do that?’ ‘What’s the solution here?’
It’s sign of coaches not just brought through the RFU system but, when coupled with the high-level drills and technical debriefs, of coaches who’ve been to the top.
The top is a place Chesham’s coaching duo knows only too well, both having won the rugby world cup in 2014. What’s more, there’s not a player in England who’s been around the international block more times than Rochelle ‘Rocky’ Clark (129 Tests and counting) and there are few more prolific try scorers on the Test stage than Kat Merchant (44 tries in 58 Tests – incidentally, almost identical to Julian Savea’s 44 in 54). Considering the stats, what makes Chesham ‘pioneering’, really shouldn’t. And yet it seems Rocky and Kat are the only female duo to currently coach an English club’s men’s side – certainly it seems no clubs have a female head coach. “Giselle Mathers used to coach at Teddington,” offers Rocky when asked of others. “But she’s now a coach at the London Irish Academy.”
Giselle is indeed a great example for Rocky and Kat to follow. Rocky and Kat are two of just 14 female level three coaches, whereas Giselle was not only the first level four female coach, but even now remains one of just two in the country.
Although Rocky is still playing – for Tyrell’s Super League side Wasps and England – she was the one who first took up the role at Chesham, where they’ve now been part of the fabric of the club for close to five years. “I saw the role of head coach advertised on a poster at my local gym,” she explains. “I needed a job and I obviously love rugby, so I thought I’d give it a go. I was up against a few others, and was lucky enough to get the call.”
Ask the club however, and they admit they were the lucky ones. “As soon as we saw her international record, that was it, job done,” explains Cliff Davies, president of Chesham. “An international coach just doesn’t happen at this level.”
Even more remarkable, they ended up with two. “Two weeks after I got the job,” continues Rocky, “I turned up for the first session and we had about 60 people there! As it was pre-season, the women had come along as well and basically everyone had come out of the woodwork. They were playing about 30-a-side with one ball and I was like ‘oh my God, what have I let myself in for?’. Fortunately Kat wasn’t too far away, so I gave her a call and she came up to help out.”
“They were doing one-out repeat,” chips in Kat, “it was literally passing the ball and crashing, passing the ball and crashing – I did think ‘what have we done’ because the standard was lower than we thought, but every year we’ve been here, either the men or women’s side has been promoted.”
We’re talking after training on a Tuesday, one of five days you might find Rocky at the club, taking the ladies side on Wednesday, the men again on Thursday, and then two match days on Saturday (men) and Sunday (women). The room we’re in is a classroom, part of the local school in which the club are based. They did once have a proper clubhouse at the school but renovations meant they lost it four years ago and instead found themselves having their pints poured from a bar in a makeshift shed, using the school changing rooms and serving post-match food in the classroom in which we sit. Far from ideal, even Cliff admits ‘we’ve got rubbish facilities at the moment’. Things are changing though. The same ambition that led them to appoint Rocky and Kat has driven them to raise £600,000 towards the building of a new clubhouse, no mean feat in a town of just 20,000.
Back to the chat and, as Rocky and Kat order drinks – lime and soda for both, ‘heavy on the lime’ for Rocky – they talk of why they wanted to coach. “I did a sports science and coaching degree so I always wanted to go into coaching,” says Rocky, “I started doing community coaching at Henley Rugby Club, then local schools for Wasps and probably did my first proper coaching with Bucks Uni in 2010.”
“I fell into it a little bit more,” says Kat, picking up the story. “I was more into the strength and conditioning side but because I had to retire early through injury I coached the club I played at, Worcester Ladies.”
That retirement hit Kat hard. Just 28 at the time, an 11th concussion of her playing career meant medical advice forced her hand into giving up the game she loved. What made it worse, she’d only just been announced as one of the players England were putting on a sevens contract in the build-up to the Rio Olympics. “Coaching at Worcester after I’d retired was very difficult,” admits Kat, “it forced me to face a lot of demons. I’d get pre-match nerves as if I was playing but it was then very difficult to turn those nerves into something because I wasn’t playing, I’d almost be too motivated. It’s different with the men, because I’ve never played men’s rugby, so I never think I’m going to play, it’s just always fun.
“When I knew I was going to have to retire, I called the guys together because they’d all been congratulating me on the sevens contract so I said to them: ‘I can’t take it up, I’m going to have to retire, and I’m not going to be ready to talk about it for about three months. And they were like ‘oh no’, and just go on with it.
“I think it’s probably quite easy to step away completely from rugby when you can’t play because it’s too painful. The first year was awful. I remember watching Rocky play and saw them singing the anthem and I just cried and I never cry.”
“She’s like a robot,” offers Rocky. “Yeah I am,” admits Kat. “I remember after one big game when we’d beaten Bletchley, it was a really emotional moment and Carl [who helps them coach] is talking to the lads and he’s got a tear in his eye, and there’s a photo of me and there’s nothing there – I just look bored! I was happy though!”
Although walking away from rugby might have been an option, given that Kat and Rocky are housemates, along with their assistant coach Carl and another sevens player Meg, escaping was never really likely even if she wanted to. “They are always having scrum chat,” says Kat of her housemates. “I get enough rugby everywhere else and I just want to switch off and watch a film, but they’re always watching it or talking about it – it just breaks my soul, I can only take so much!”
When they’re at Chesham though, talking rugby is definitely on the agenda and together they make a good team. Proof is not just in the results on the pitch, but also the philosophy. Almost by accident, Cliff sums up the playing style in one pithy line, ‘it’s attack, attack, attack – although we do score from a lot of rolling mauls’.
The influence of both is also evident not just at training, or on the pitch, but in the habits of the players. “They’ve changed the way the players think, it’s a new mindset,” says Cliff. “They’re more interested in nutrition and protein shakes. My son plays in the first team and he’ll go to the gym as well as his rugby training sessions and then won’t go out on a Friday night before a game anymore.
“It’s been great for the girls too. Some of these girls idolise Rocky, they’ll want pictures taken with her and ask for autographs – to them she’s like David Beckham.”
Talking to the players and it’s clear of the pair’s impact. “There was a buzz around the place when they arrived,” explains captain Jack Davies, “We knew they’d played for England, so a lot of people showed up and as women’s rugby has started to get big since they’ve joined, I think they definitely bring people in.”
“I was away when they joined,” says hooker Taz Hagan, “but when I returned to the club I couldn’t believe how good the standard was, it was chalk and cheese. They get you thinking about how you’re playing, they ask you questions all the time – they’re training your brain.
“They’re not out to embarrass you either,” continues Taz.
“If you get something wrong, they pull you to one side and say ‘look this is what you should’ve done’. Kat does go mental if we’re late though.”
“Or if we have a rubbish warm-up,” says Jack. “She’ll go mental then to gee us up for the session.”
Any reaction to them not being men?
“Not from us,” says Jack, “their quality is proven. Look at the level they’re playing for their clubs and England and they don’t have to convince anyone how good they are.”
What sex they are shouldn’t even be a talking point, but it is. “I think Chesham are unique. I’ve applied for coaching jobs before this one – ones that only requiring nothing more than a level two – and I’ve known that if there was a man’s name at the top of my CV, I would’ve got it,” admits Kat. “You just want them to give you a chance because once you actually start coaching they’ll see you know your stuff. Even now if you look at coaching job descriptions, it will describe the ideal candidate as ‘he’, not even adding ‘he/she’. Chesham were forward-thinking, they just thought ‘we’ve got a role model in Rocky and she’s got these qualifications’ – so fair play to them.”
“A couple of times,” Rocky begins, “we’ve been coaching on the side of the pitch, and our male housemate has been standing on the sideline, behind the ropes, with a beer and people have gone up to him presuming he’s the coach and that we’re physios.”
“One referee came over said ‘oh, they’re lucky they have two physios’,” adds Kat, “Could he not even possibly consider that one of us might be a coach? As there were no other blokes there, it actually would’ve made us coachless – a club with two physios and no coach!
“Compared to when we started, that we coach is never an issue now though, once people get that we know what we’re talking about it’s fine. We don’t need to force respect.”
The ‘Rocky and Kat way’ is permeating through the club. Not just as a result of Rocky’s role as head coach of men and women’s first XV either. With five of the first XV now coaching minis, juniors and colts or helping with the women’s side, their drills, patterns of play, moves and calls are repeated over and over again. So when colts make the step up to the seniors, they, literally, know the drill.
Perhaps the only occasional fly in the ointment, is the levels of commitment or rather the varying expectations that come from being in an England environment and then at a level eight grassroots club. “That’s probably one of our biggest downfalls,” admits Rocky. “Because we come from an elite level, we probably don’t understand that family and work commitments can get in the way of rugby.”
“Yeah, I find the commitment side hard too,” says Kat. “I’ve always dedicated my life to rugby so I don’t understand when someone can’t make a game because it’s a mate’s birthday. One of them booked a holiday Saturday-to-Saturday, and missed two league games, if they’d gone any other day they’d have missed just one.
“And I do get in a strop if one of the 10, 12 or 13 don’t turn up to training – I think having those three together is key– so if one is missing I go ‘what’s the point?’ and get stroppy...”
“… then I calm her down and she has the best session ever,” finishes Rocky.
Cliff agrees. “They do struggle with the commitment side,” he admits, “it’s because they’ve been committed to it their whole lives, so when a player can’t train because his gerbil has to be put down, they do get angry. But it’s changing though, they always have good numbers in training.”
With the new clubhouse and facilities on the horizon, together with hopefully a promotion or two, there’s plenty for Rocky and Kat still to achieve at Chesham, but with women’s rugby in the ascendency and finally gaining recognition for the standard of play. Could there be a time when they have to move on? “That’s all down to us,” reckons Jack, “if we show them the commitment, I think we’ll keep them. We went through a spate last year when numbers really dropped, and it showed a lack of respect for them and I think they were considering leaving, because what’s the point in having their expertise if they’re going to be training six people?”
For their part, while Rocky has no intention on hanging up her boots just yet – ‘I’ll play until I’m 60’, she laughs (while not joking at all) – on the coaching side, her next goal is her level four. Beyond Chesham, plans are more of the pipedream variety. Rocky says it would be a dream to be an international forwards’ coach or maybe work in an academy, whereas Kat wouldn’t mind coaching some sevens, although adds doing that with Chesham would be good too. In short, they’re happy where they are. “As long as we’re progressing,’ begins Kat, before adding, “then we’ll see what happens.”
How far they can work their up the male rugby pyramid, might depend on them, but only to some extent. “I think we could probably coach at level three,” reckons Kat, “but they wouldn’t have a female coach any higher. In the championship, it would probably start looking at people who have played in that division and that’s obviously impossible.”
“We just want to be good coaches,” adds Rocky, “not good female coaches, just good coaches.”
“I think perceptions are changing, it’s becoming the norm and people understand that we just know rugby, your mind’s no different just because you’re a woman.”
Words by: Alex Mead
Pictures by: Han Lee De Boer