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Craig Dwyer’s decade in NZ powers St Charles College’s exciting rugby

By Brad Morgan , in Rugby | Featured Rugby | News , at 2024-05-08 Tags:

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know something good is brewing in the rugby programme at St Charles College. Most recently, at the Standard Bank Grey High Rugby Festival, the school’s strong results through the age groups reflected this.

The 1st XV comfortably beat Ithembelihle 52-10 and Hudson Park 26-5. The u16A side narrowly lost 8-13 to Queen’s College but then beat Hudson Park 24-0. The u15A team went down 10-17 to Framesby, then won 14-7 against St Andrew’s College. The u14A side drew 7-7 with Queen’s College and overran St Andrew’s College 56-0.

Clearly, Saints are seriously competitive against established rugby-playing schools. But the focus at the Pietermaritzburg school is about more than the results, it’s about the rugby culture that has been growing there, about a process to develop a love for the game, and to promote the skills to enjoy it to its fullest.

To imbue that culture into the school, St Charles has turned to Glenwood old boy Craig Dwyer, who took over as the Director of Rugby this season, after having spent over a decade coaching the game in New Zealand and Chile.

Naturally, the very first question, when SuperSport Schools Plus sat down with Dwyer, was how does the schoolboy rugby scene in the Land of the Long White Cloud differs from the scene in South Africa?

“There, it’s running rugby that they pride themselves on and playing an attractive brand. So, it’s really just the micro details in and around how they coach it,” he said.

So, what exactly, after his experiences abroad, which also included coaching a multi-cultural team of many different nationalities and languages at Ponsonby, in Auckland, is Dwyer bringing to St Charles College?

“Just trying to bring a bit of my flavour in,” he said. “Obviously not take away from the South African way of playing, but also share what I’ve learned from the last 12 years in terms of trying to play running rugby and how to coach that.

Creative running rugby, with room for flair is the name of the game for the St Charles 1st XV.
Creative running rugby, with room for flair, is the name of the game for the St Charles 1st XV.

“So, the question for me was always what is running rugby? We want to use the ball, we want to play to the edges, we want to play attractive rugby. But then, it becomes the how? Are we preparing our boys adequately to play that style of rugby?”

The focus, Dwyer said, is on the micro details. “How we coach it, so our run, catch, pass, for example.”

He explained: “One clear example is where we catch the ball. Here in South Africa, we tend to catch the ball to our chest. So, we’re not really focused on the detail. Let’s get the ball out here,” he said, extending his hands out in front, “so we can utilise it and play.”

It’s about creating options, Dwyer said, and having the ball in the right position opens up more possibilities and many bodies in motion confuse and open up defences.

“The second part of it is our fitness and conditioning,” Dwyer added. “We want to play running rugby and to play effective running rugby we need to be the fittest team on the field. Credit to our strength and conditioning coach, Jason Greeff. He’s done an incredible job with the boys this year in the preseason and getting them to that level.”

The goal, Dwyer said, is for the players to be able to play a 100-minute game. They need to be fit enough not just for a 70-minute contest, but they need to have enough in reserve to handle it comfortably.

“For us, it’s sort of that Sharks’ team of the ’90s. We come alive in the last quarter of the game, last 20 minutes or so.”

The third thing Dwyer mentioned, was certainly a step away from the South African norm. “We don’t over-coach structure and systems.” At schoolboy level, he opined, there is too much focus on them, but not enough on the details.

“It’s really just working a lot on their decision-making, support play, making sure that we have two, three, or four options, off of every carry. It’s not just one, we’re tucking and we’re going. To effectively play running rugby, we need those three elements, week in and week out.”

The Saints’ boys were surprised early on that they weren’t investing as much time as they were used to on shape and systems. Rather, the focus was on fundamentals and earning the right to play in a good system. It’s a layer-by- layer approach, Dwyer explained.

In a nutshell, he said: “It’s not so much about systems and structure. It’s what they do within them that makes them effective.”

That approach, he argued, imposes fewer limits on forwards and ensures more of a 15-man game, with the forwards also featuring as ball players.

Dwyer has an affinity for the NFL and said he has shared a quote from the New England Patriots’ six-time Super Bowl winning coach Bill Belichick with his players. It’s simple – four words – but it compasses what is needed: “Just do your job“.

With Saints' rugby on an upward trajectory, support for, and excitement about, it is high.
With Saints’ rugby on an upward trajectory, support for the team is enthusiastic and optimistic.

He is not trying to reinvent the wheel, Dwyer clarified. St Charles will still try to dominate the collisions, but they also want to play with soft touches, which is the flavour of New Zealand rugby that he wants to share with his charges.

Last season, St Charles was one of the best teams to be seen during the KZN Sevens season, with their swift ball movement, the way they used the width of the field, and the confidence their players showed with the ball in hand impressing. Now, under Dwyer, those qualities are being seen to a greater extent in the 15-man game.

They brought Saints a win over Milnerton in their season-opener, down in the Cape. That win has looked better week by week. Milnerton has since beaten, among others, Rondebosch Boys’ High, Bishops, Hugenote and Bellville. Interestingly, if there is another team that reflects a ball-in-hand, running approach, it is Milnerton.

Thus far this season, St Charles has won six and lost three games. There was a heavy defeat against an excellent DHS team at the Sharks High Schools Rugby Day, a four-point defeat against Bishops – a game that they would have loved to play again – but the other was literally a last-second loss against Secunda.

But, as was said earlier, it’s more about the process and how the players play the game. It’s not only about the results while they’re in school, but also about equipping them to succeed on the rugby field after their school days are done.

Having heard Dwyer’s philosophy about the game, check out a Saints’ match, see how they create multiple options, how they let the ball do the work. They’re a fun watch. So often, attractive rugby is winning rugby, and the Pietermaritzburg school continues to develop an attractive and effective game. And the wins’ column is growing.

Saints is blessed with exciting ball players in the 1st XV, including, among others, fullback Salmaan Mohammed, flyhalf Ukhanyo Ntsangani, scrumhalf Matthew Fick, 8th-man Stefan Veldsman, and their big lock Raphael Ajibade, who is a highlight reel waiting to happen. He’s a serious problem for the opposition in the Sevens’ game, which also speaks volumes about his athleticism, fitness and skills.

Fick is the player around whom the team is built. A Sharks’ Craven Week selection in 2023, he delivers a crisp service from the base of the scrum, has an eye for a gap, and is a force on defence. One of the highlights of the KZN High Schools Rugby Day was a try-saving tackle he pulled off against DHS. In the same match, he also scored from 60 metres out, utilising a goose step and a dummy.

Saints' scrumhalf Matthew Fick owns an outstanding all-round game, which is ideally suited to the attacking identity of the team. Photo: Justin Waldman Sports Photography.
Saints’ scrumhalf Matthew Fick owns an outstanding all-round game, which is ideally suited to the attacking identity of the team. Photo: Justin Waldman Sports Photography.

But, as should be clear from Craig Dwyer’s thoughts about how to play the game, Saints are about more than talented individuals. They’re all about the team, which, in a smaller school, is critically important. It’s what enables them to compete with bigger schools, and it fosters a spirit that permeates through the ranks and grows the game and the brotherhood.

Dwyer is a not just the St Charles College Director of Rugby, he is also a fan of the game and, when discussing the great Gary Teichmann-led Sharks’ teams of the 1990s, his face lights up. Highlights of games past are shared, and the skills of the players are relived.

If you didn’t quite get what Dwyer had to say about how he wants to see Saints play the game, maybe an easier way to look at it might be to remember those great Sharks teams: the flair, the flowing, confident game, the entertainment, the micro-details.

There, you have the blueprint for success for St Charles College rugby. The question is whether or not you can stop it.

error: Sorry ol' chap, those shenanigans are not permissible.