Lauren Aston caught up with Brian in June 2021 to try and gleam an insight into his extensive sports and teaching career.
Born in Lancashire in 1946 in the era of street games and inventing your own activities, Brian said “We would come home from school and head straight out to play, never knowing who would be out or what we would be playing. It could be Cricket in the middle of winter or football and rugby in the middle of summer. It all depended on who brought out what equipment!”
LA: What are the differences between then and now?
BA: We had the freedom to choose. Children were very self-sufficient and self-regulating, meaning we looked after ourselves. There were no adults to supervise, no referees and nobody to teach or coach us. It allowed us to be ourselves and to develop naturally without being restricted. However, the advantage of activities today is the wide variety that are available.
A teacher from 1969 to 1996 Brian took a break to travel to France and Italy.
LA: How was your early years of teaching and how did it differ from teaching today?
BA: When I started teaching in 1969 it was very much about the teacher being in control. It was a command control environment, where pupils sat in rows in the classroom, kept quiet and if they listened to what you told them they would pass their exams. I look back and it was a complete nonsense! Children thrive on interaction. I went on to develop my own teaching style which I like to think engaged children more.
LA: Did you enjoy teaching?
BA: I really did. It was an exciting time as you were never quite sure at the start of the day what was going to come through the classroom door. Often it depended on what mood the pupils were in or what lessons they had before you! My greatest teaching memory was seeing pupils exceed their own expectations.
I have been very lucky in my coaching career, coaching at the very top of World Rugby
LA: What was your favourite out of playing, teaching, or coaching?
BA: This is a no brainer! Playing is, by some margin number one. However, saying that I probably would not enjoy playing in the modern game with all the restrictions, structures and systems that are in place. Teaching would be a second. That is not to say I don’t enjoy coaching. I have been very lucky in my coaching career. Coaching at the very top of World Rugby.
LA: You lived in Italy and France for some years, how did you find that? Was it easy to integrate?
BA: It changed me as a person! Different cultures, language, behaviours, and way of life all contributed to me learning how to engage with other people more productively. I still speak fluent Italian now; my French is not as good. I have been invited on numerous occasions, by the Italian Rugby Federation to present in Italian to some of their leading coaches. Rugby was played with much more freedom in both Italy and France, it really excited me.
LA: How did you get into coaching?
BA: From the very beginning of my teaching career in 1969 I began coaching at school! Much later on Monday and Wednesday evenings I would finish teaching at 6pm driving from Kings School Bruton to Bath Rugby’s training ground at Lambridge. Rugby was an amateur sport at this time, but we were the top club in Europe and hosted a team of international players that demanded incredibly high standards from the coaching staff.
LA: How did you deal with that?
BA: Not well to begin with. I had to learn on the job! These players could be quite confrontational and once asked me ‘is that the best you can come up with?’ This changed the way I approached coaching and developed me and my coaching skills massively. Positive challenge eventually worked both ways. I do believe there should be an environment of respectful challenge between players and coaches.
LA: How did your career develop from Bath Rugby?
BA: I went on to become head coach of Ireland. This was probably a mistake in my career as the game had just gone professional at this point; however, in Ireland it was still relatively amateur. I ended up being the only full-time professional coach at international level. The players and the people of Ireland are fantastic. However, the organisation hadn’t moved with the times, and they really struggled to go from amateur to professional. It was a difficult time, but an interesting learning experience.
We were not expected to do anything in the 2007 RWC but we took our team to the final and we ‘Shocked the World’
LA: You coached England to the 2007 World Cup and became runners up, how did you find that experience?
BA: My first encounter with England was as assistant coach in 1985 on the tour of New Zealand. I coached around 80-90 test matches over a period of years and as with everything in life it had its ups and downs: its wins and losses. 2007 was very challenging. I took the job at the end of 2006 with just 7 games before the World Cup – most other coaches had 4 years! England were not expected to achieve much so my goal was to challenge the players to go out there and exceed everyone’s expectations! My hero is Mohammad Ali, and I took a quote that he used before he fought George Foreman. “Defy the impossible and shock the world.” So, our mantra became “Shock the World” and we took it to the 2007 World Cup, and I think we did just that!
LA: You received an MBE in 2008 for your contribution to rugby, what was that like?
BA: It was a humbling experience. I received the award from Her Majesty the Queen. I wasn’t going to accept it but was persuaded to do so and I am glad I did. I share this with everyone who has helped me in my life and career.
LA: Do you do any other Rugby coaching?
BA: I still work for IRANZ (International Rugby Academy of NZ) and have done now for 12 years. I am proud to say I am the only Northern Hemisphere coach they have ever invited on a regular basis! I love the country and the people, and the All Blacks are often the top rugby side in the world. I have been told on more than one occasion that I was born in the wrong country!
I am a Super VUCA Coach with no plans to retire!
LA: At nearly 75 do you have any plans to retire?
BA: Short answer – No! I have just set up a group of ‘Super VUCA’ coaches selected from former players that I have coached over the years. We meet virtually every month and talk about how the way rugby is played today. The challenge is “Can it be changed?” The acronym VUCA was taken from military terms. It means Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. That was changed to VIBRANT, UNREAL, CRAZY and ASTOUNDING by students at Harvard University where a friend of mine was doing a presentation! So this is how the Super VUCA coaches are looking to operate.
LA: Do you have any regrets?
BA: I suppose the only regret is not pursuing my musical career. I was a drummer and played in lots of local groups! I would also have loved to live in New Zealand – the most fabulous place on earth!
LA: Why did you become an ambassador for Find Your Activity?
BA: When I was asked it really was a no brainer. My whole life has been based around sports and activities. I believe being active and finding new and different ways to do this helps us to grow and develop not only physically but mentally and emotionally. Find Your Activity is a great concept. Having everything in one place, TripAdvisor to the activity world.
Head to our Ambassador page to see who supports us at Find Your Activity.