An hour in the company of Rhys Marshall is time well spent.
The Highlanders hooker only turned 30 last month but his rugby story is already rich with experiences: he had success early, won Super Rugby titles, hit a flat patch, shifted to Munster in Ireland and then returned to New Zealand to help Waikato to an NPC title.
He’s played under Wayne Smith, Dave Rennie, Rassie Erasmus, Jacques Nienaber and Stephen Larkham and alongside players who are already quasi-coaches such as Michael Leitch at the Chiefs.
He’s a rugby sponge, candid, inquisitive, and with well formed opinions about everything from the stark difference between New Zealand players and the Irish, players’ egos (including his own), team dynamics, the elusiveness of “culture” (the Highlanders have brought in club legend Nasi Manu to show their players how to live it) and his admiration for the Black Ferns’ players and their ability to sell the code during the Rugby World Cup.
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His time with Munster, in particular, has given him an insight into Irish rugby culture compared to New Zealand – and perhaps explains why the All Blacks are now playing catch-up.
“The level of detail that the Irish player gets over and gets through, compared to a New Zealand player who’s probably more talented, is a lot less,” said Marshall, who played 80 times for Munster between 2016-2021.
“The Irish boys had their books and it would be very orderly and they’d know their role inside out.
“Whereas Kiwis, because we want to be seen as a fluid rugby nation, they are a lot more casual. They are not as reliable on the scrum detail, lineout detail, kickoff detail – the basics.
“I’ve got a real passion for the game, the nitty gritty and the detail all the rest of it. And I know the details. I’ll have a conversation with the coaches, and I’ll have a conversation with the leadership group.
“There’s guys here…that’s not their passion. They love playing code, and they love being an athlete, but it’s almost as if they spend time on the other side of the game, they’re going to take away from what.”
Marshall has his concerns about New Zealand. He worries a bit about Super Rugby’s future and he certainly worries about the decline in rural rugby clubs and the subsequent social isolation of farming communities.
The Taranaki local loves that side of the game. At the end of Super Rugby Pacific and before the NPC this year, he persuaded the Highlanders and Waikato to let him play club rugby. When it is suggested that he is a good fit for a professional coaching role, he says he would prefer to have an impact at the grassroots level.
In fact, he sees an opportunity – or a necessity – for Super Rugby clubs in New Zealand to up their game in the community, an area that was hard hit during Covid. What the All Blacks get away with doesn’t wash at Super Rugby level, he believes.
“They get one or two individuals that will come out and speak, but that’s the way the All Blacks are,” he said. “But I don’t think the franchises can afford to be like that. They need to be out in the public and have as much contact as you can.
“We don’t have people willing to pay $55-$60 a ticket to come and watch us…But if we’re not the All Blacks, you don’t have the ability not to interact and generate as much excitement about a Saturday game as the All Blacks.
“That’s something that kind of frustrates me. Where does that fit in? I’ve had some awesome conversations to cope with coaches about how you fit everything.”
The ingredients that make a successful team are also a source of fascination for Marshall. He’s seen undoubtedly passionate players struggle to communicate a good idea.
He’s seen a theme for a year fall slightly flat, such as the Chiefs ‘reload the double-barrel shotgun’ effort in 2014. He’s seen teams where players who aren’t in the leadership group but three or four others around influence them either sink a team or elevate it.
He takes his hat off to coaches who can capture the magic formula, but he is convinced that unless there is a bigger cause to play for then coaches are effectively repackaging the same message every year without much meaning.
“Rugby players are no different…like lots of things when you have external motivation that makes your day-to-day stuff a little bit less of an obligation.” he said. “The prime example would be the Reds back in the day winning it [in 2011] after a whole lot of floods went through Queensland.
“Their ability to get out into the community helped them realize, ‘Actually, what we do isn’t as tough as what other people were doing’.
“It’s no different to the Highlanders culture and no different to the Munster culture. All these cultures are trying to get you to do things that you’re not comfortable doing: putting your head into dark places, doing big contact training sessions.
“That’s what I love about rugby. It’s a job, but it’s so much more than that.”
Marshall on rugby’s clash of hemispheres
“New Zealand struggles to understand the complexities of northern hemisphere rugby, while northern hemisphere rugby struggles with the simplicity of New Zealand rugby. It’s almost like to two polar opposites. But the All Blacks have not evolved. And Wales and New Zealand, especially those two countries, if they don’t continue to develop and evolve, then the Englands, the South Africans, the Argentinians – those teams are always going to be hard. It’s almost brains versus brawn in my head.”
On Springbok’s coaching director Rassie Erasmus
“One of the most interesting people I’ve ever met. Basically, he and [Springboks coach] Jacques [Nienaber] worked in tandem [at Munster]. He had to make the tough calls. He had to pick guys, he had point out reviews, he had to be nasty. Jacques has the other side of that, where he’s the people’s person and really understands what people are going through. Rassie, he put himself into a position that he couldn’t be that friendly if he wanted to cut you, or pick someone else. And there was one thing that I found fascinating. We played a very boring type of rugby but we won. It’s something that I wasn’t used to and probably didn’t enjoy as much…but f— you enjoy winning.”
On Eddie Jones and Dave Rennie
“Eddie Jones is a World Cup coach. He’s not worried about a 25-all draw with the All Blacks. Whereas Dave Rennie is a different kind of coach, where he’s going to elevate these guys [Wallabies] to be their best selves. Under Dave, for me, that was ‘I can do more than I think I can. And that’s lifting weights, that’s analysis, and also I can do more in the community, I can do more with my wife.’ He was awesome in that space. They [Wallabies] might come right, but maybe the balance has been off.”
The pitfalls of winning a Super Rugby contract at a young age
“Mine was ego. I came through school and they put you on a pedestal. I went away and worked for a couple of years but I was still good at rugby and that’s your identity. When you get this contract your ego is sitting there and guys are saying, ‘You deserve to buy nice stuff with nice cars and all the rest of it’. And your ego allows you to do that. But as soon as you hit a bump – and I hit a bump in the 2014-2016 seasons – sports people in general, their reactions are really, really negative.”
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