Hawke’s Bay coach Now New Zealand’s Hawke’s Bay District coach, Brooke James spoke at length about his management style while looking back at the great moments in his career. He hopes to return to Clermont with a coaching cap.
Brooke, you retired from playing in 2020. What’s happened since then?
I was in Wales for two years as an attack coach and three quarters with the Ospreys. Then, due to Covid-19, my family returned to New Zealand and had to return to Wales. But schools were closed while my children in New Zealand resumed classes and exercise. They were well established here, and my wife and I made the decision that I would find work there to join them. I had the opportunity with Hawke’s Bay Magpies. Their head coach had gone to the Western Force in the meantime, and we had a mutual friend, Paul Tito, and he just told me there was a vacancy here, so I jumped at the chance. I switched as head coach this season.
How did you handle the transition from a position position to a head coach position, with more restrictions?
There’s a lot more work than you can imagine and it’s been a very quick transition, even though I wanted to be a coach no matter what. When I was forty-one, I told myself it was now or never, the group had been together for a while, twenty-eight players remained and it wasn’t difficult for me. I just had to imbue the group with my way of seeing rugby. I didn’t worry too much about the strikers (laughs) because we were lucky to have coaches on the bench and on the sidelines. There’s a lot of administration and personnel management, which doesn’t really exist when you’re an offensive tackle coach.
What is your playing philosophy?
The essence of our game is to play a lot with the ball, get out of order a little, create out of nowhere… but this year we took on the challenge to be more realistic and control the game a little more. Style but it was necessary to win (laughs)! The idea for the future is to find a balance between the two playing styles, while adapting to the profiles of our players.
Your team has reached the final of the NPC (New Zealand Provincial Championship). Tell us about this saga…
There is a Storm Week NPC (Literally, Stormy Week, editor’s note) Each team plays three matches a week. We started the season this way, winning the first four games and then losing the next three. It was a bit up and down but we ended up with five away wins, particularly in the Bay of Plenty where we never won. We reached the final match, which is the first in the history of our club. We made a lot of progress this year even if we lost in the end by four points. It’s a bit complicated to lose so close to the goal… but hey (smiles). People might say I’m used to losing in finals. My kids still ask me how many Top 14 finals I’ve lost…well, I’ve played more than I’ve won! Within the club, we told ourselves that maybe it would have been better to lose in the semi-finals this season, it would hurt less.
Do you draw inspiration from the coaches you worked with as a player?
Yes, I draw inspiration from many influences. Verne Cotter of course, especially on the human side. I was inspired by the way he took the players with him, he was a role model for us at Clermont. On the technical side, who else but Joe Schmidt? He is one of the best technicians in the world, I learned a lot with him. When I was at the Ospreys, Toby Booth had a huge influence on me. He’s spent twenty-five years coaching the fans, the touchline, the attack, the defense…everything! When I was there he gave me a lot of independence, he was a very good mentor and I really progressed during those two years in Wales with him.
Eddie Jones has resigned as Australia coach. Would you apply to take over the Wallabies?
No, no, I’m not ready for that yet (laughs)! I want to spend my time here. When I stopped my playing career, I always wanted to return south to gain experience after twenty years in Europe. I really wanted to be able to get a handle on this rugby before I go back to France, hopefully, and find an opportunity there.
In Claremont, for example?
Yes, of course. It’s a club very close to my heart, I spent ten years there and it’s the club that gave me the opportunity when I was young. If the opportunity arises, I will return to ASM. I can already see that this season looks better than the last two years, even if it’s only six days.
So you are still following the club from afar…
Yes, I try to watch as many summaries as possible to see the results and rankings. Unfortunately, most of the seniors retired or left (laughs), but I kept in touch with Aurelien Ruggieri. In La Rochelle, I stay close to the foreigners there.
I left ASM in 2016 after ten years as a finalist. What explains your dominance in French rugby during this period?
Claremont in 2006 was a bit like Hawke’s Bay today. We had a team no one expected us to get into the final, and in the end we were three minutes away from lifting the Brennus Shield. In that season, we found the desire to win, and to come back every year even if we lost in the final. We always wanted to go back to Paris and experience the smell of the final, until 2010 when we finally won. After that, we were very close to winning the European Champions Cup. We haven’t been able to do it yet, but I hope we can one day!
In fact, ten years ago, Toulon beat you in the final. Is it still a scar?
It’s still difficult today. Every year we took a step forward, and in 2013 we felt like we had things under control (pauses)… Well, actually it’s a big scar when I think about it. We lost the game due to a tackle, a turnover and a converted try. Even after years we don’t forget.
Some former residents of Touloney claimed that you brought them shame and that Dillon Armitage responded to your shame with his characteristic gesture. Are they right?
I ? ! No, this is not possible. On the rugby field you talk a lot but that wasn’t my style, I didn’t even speak French and it was complicated for me because of the language barrier. I think he would have made this move even if it was another player. Even ten years later, I never spoke to him.
Isn’t there a reconciliation with Armitage then?
I was never close to him. We crossed paths on the pitch but nothing more than that, including off the pitch.
What do you remember from your visits to ASM, Bordeaux-Bègles and La Rochelle?
At Claremont, the fans always supported me even in difficult times. We’ve been together for ten years, so I still thank them today, they’ve been so supportive. I can’t forget my time in La Rochelle either. We saw many journalists in Pro D2 during the 2016-2017 season and we finished first in the regular stage by qualifying for the Champions Cup. The atmosphere of French stadiums is unparalleled in the world. I can say that even more now that I’m in New Zealand. Living this experience, every week for ten years, has been truly special. I say to young New Zealanders: ‘If you have the opportunity to go and play in France, do it.’
What is your greatest pride?
There are two. 2010 title after losing three times in a row. That was a huge relief, really. This year, we won the Ranfurly Shield, one of New Zealand’s most prestigious awards. Hawke’s Bay have won the title for three years, we lost last year and this season we were able to regain our title. As a coach, that was a highlight for me.
Conversely, if you could change one moment in your career, what would it be?
2010 European Cup quarter-final in Leinster. We lost by one point and I lost so many points on my feet that I didn’t want to count them (26 points). But fortunately, the season did not end there, it was very difficult, and we won 14th place after that. We had amazing mental strength, and I personally had to face this difficult moment.
Do you regret not playing at international level, especially with the France national team?
I reached out to the staff at XV of France in 2014. But it was really quick. Then we had a bad start to the season that year, and Camil Lopez had just arrived and started taking my place. I played the first three days, I wasn’t very good, then Camille took over and played very well. I played rugby sevens for the Australian team, but I don’t regret my career. I left for France because I wasn’t good enough in Australia. When I left, I knew I wasn’t going to be selected for the Wallabies.
The Wallabies’ World Cup performance certainly didn’t please you…
It was really strange because I thought the team was progressing with Dave Rennie, even if there were defeats. I honestly believe they are in a good position to attack the World Cup after three years of work. Then they changed the coach and the players… When I heard that Eddie Jones was going to coach the Wallabies, I thought he would take the same players as Rennie, especially since he had so much success in the World Cup. But that didn’t happen…
And the fifteenth for France?
disgusted! They were really gaining momentum… I think a lot about that final move where Reda Wardi snatched the ball away. I played with him and was disgusted by him. I really thought France would win the World Cup.
In your opinion, what is the biggest development for the opening position?
The physical aspect, like all centers today. Everyone is bigger and stronger. At that time I was coach number 10, but today you have to be more of an actor and carry the ball more. Romain Ntamack and Mathieu Jalibert are the best examples. What I love about Matteo is that he always has the confidence to try things that haven’t been done before.
If you were a gamer in 2023, would you be the same as you were in the 2000s?
I do not think so. I don’t think my profile would be effective today… but I could have been good at finding a 50-22 year old (laughs)! If this rule had existed in my time, it would have been perfect for me!
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