How the Islanders became The Islanders

February 16, 2020

— by Dean Ward, founding Islanders Head Coach


How did you become a TRC member and Head Coach?

My youngest brother, James, joined TRC when first moving over from Hong Kong around 2009/2010 and I used to come down to Turf City and watch him play.   I then started to come down regularly and helped out by holding tackle shields becoming more involved in training sessions.   In the summer of 2012, I was asked to take over the U16 team from Andrew Spooner who was moving back to the UK with his family.


Becoming The Islanders

We knew things had to change especially as the team could no longer be considered as part of a “mini rugby club” and we had to get them to think differently, moving away from a “do as the coach tells you” approach to where they were more empowered, and where the team became theirs.  We wanted to create that rugby academy feel where the top age group would be the pinnacle of rugby for the club. The team that everyone looked up to and wanted to play in one day.

We needed to create a new identity for the team, something that they all could relate to and be proud to be a part of, we needed them to stand out, to become role models, to fully embrace what it meant to be part of TRC.


The name “Islanders”

First thing, the name, this became quite a heated discussion, and debate. It got to a point where three men were sitting around the table, head on arms randomly shouting out names to each other. The Bulldogs, The Merlions, The Crusaders, The Horse Eaters, The Bumblebees, philosophical questions about why in 500 BC they decided to put the body of a man onto the leg of a horse were being asked. The shouting went on up until someone asked whether Singapore was an island, we all lifted our heads, and the light bulb turned on. The Islanders was created.


The Islanders identity

It wasn’t just about the name, creating a new identity was going to involve a lot more than that: new kit including a match day shirt, training T’s, training vests, Islanders rugby balls, a new philosophy to how we wanted to play, train, but probably most importantly, handing the ownership, and accountability of our behavior, attitude and success of the team to the players.  Without this buy-in, it would not have worked.   Resulting almost in creating a club within a club.

The plans were shared with a group of players who we felt would be key influencers. They came up with a pre-season motivational video clip and the big reveal was done at Garry Reeves house just before the season started.

We were all presented (players/coaches) with this amazing opportunity to do something different and create something special, and I feel the boys really embraced it, made it their own, and created the foundations of something which is still going on today.

We were very lucky because the club, the parents and the other coaches were so supportive and who always had our back. We never had the fear of failing because we were all so vested into the Islanders, we were going to do everything needed to make it a success.

There are so many people who were so influential in making the Islanders happen and without them, it would not have taken off: Individuals like Hedley Norrish, Garry Reeves, Bryan Martone, Mark Nelligan, Ashley Wright, Nick Garrity, Adam Buttersworth, the Barkhams, Gibbsy, Brett Cameron, the list really does go on.


The Islander’s Philosophy

Day 1, we decided as a team what our goal would be – what did we want to aim for that would epitomize our success?  What did they feel would be a challenging yet achievable goal? A goal that was Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and something we would have a clearly defined Time Frame.  That goal was winning the TRC Cup.

That was then broken up into mini goals, Centaurs 10s, Clifford Chance Touch Tournament, the KL 10s, League and so on,  ensuring there was always something to work towards.

As savvy young adults, they would see right through us if we weren’t planned or organised and that would lead to them losing interest, so came our playbook.  It was our master plan of how we were going to defend and attack, our approach in each of the zones, lineouts, scrums, set plays, introducing SAS in defense, Suck Suck Blow in the attack, hot cold and focusing on the 10, 12 channels. It was up to each player to read and understand that playbook and part of their learning was to identify a player in their position and watch them.

There was an emphasis on “Coach the skill, not the drill”.

At the same time touch rugby was taking off and this was another opportunity to get the team to do some added fitness and ball handling skills without them even realizing it.  Add to the equation that the girls were involved, and suddenly, each session ended with the question of “can we play touch with the girls”?

It always amazed me how they were always able to muster enough energy at the end of a session to put their singlets on and attempt to put on a gun show to play touch rugby with the girls.

I learned a very important lesson in motivation and how to inspire people in the sense that there is no one way to do it.  In the beginning, it was all shouting, shoulder barges, using words like “destroy” “annihilate” and phrases like “show no mercy” “munch them” “eat them” but the effects were minimal.  And literally all we had to do, especially when playing at home, was say “we have our game plan, and by the way, there are girls watching”, the testosterone kicked in, the peacocking began and they all played that little bit better, played with more swagger, they wanted to score the try, they wanted to be noticed.


Defining Moments as an Islander Coach

There are so many moments but I’ve chosen 5 which I am particularly proud of.

1/ KL 10s – having won all our group games very comfortably incl. against Bintang, we were probably favourites going into the cup competition, however, a lapse of concentration in the quarters, a score in sudden death, we were relegated to the bowl. This for me was the defining moment in that season, the coaches didn’t need to say anything, they knew they let themselves down, they put their hand up and said they should have done better.  They rebounded by winning the bowl and in the huddle, they said they never wanted to have this feeling again.

2/ TRC Cup – The Pacific and South Islanders were so evenly matched that they both made it into the cup final. All coaches stepped back and let the boys do their own warm up and pre-match prep.  What moved me the most was they warmed up a squad, they had a squad huddle, it wasn’t Pacifics vs Souths, it was a united Islanders team. They put on a great final and at the end, the winning team didn’t let out a big cheer, instead, they got together in a huddle and walked onto the stage together.

3/ Alfie Nelligan – It took Alfie a long time to recover from a broken leg, and mentally, even more so as there was fear of getting hurt again.  Alfie really embraced what it meant to be part of the team moving him from flanker to hooker. The development he made over that first season was a joy to watch culminating in a wonderful picture of him on the back of the sports pages of a Sri Lankan newspaper offloading the ball with 3 opposition players tackling him.

4/ Dougie Doyle – a very soft-spoken young man with very little confidence who became the lynchpin of our scrum including our tour to Sri Lanka. Brought into the Islanders a year early, he ended up playing every minute of every game in the KL 10’s and became that player who led by example.

5/ Lachie Elliott – One of the smallest players on the pitch but what an attitude epitomized by this monster try-saving tackle in the KL 10s on the opposition prop.  The reaction of his father was something I will never forget.  The reaction of the team was to win the game that put us into the semifinals of the cup.

6/ Giving Back – without us asking, many of the players turned up early to training on Sunday and volunteered to help with the younger age groups, participating in drills, holding rucking pads, allowing themselves to be tackled, and wanting to give back to the younger age groups.