Outgoing DoR Talks of his Time at the Helm

Mark Deller takes a moment to reflect on a hard won victory for the Senior XV over the RAF in the 2016 IS Championship at Burnaby Road
Admiral Jones, President of the RNRU, presents Mark Deller with his leaving gifts as he prepares to step down from his role as Director of Rugby.

Jamie Campbell-Baldwin caught up with Commander Mark Deller as he stepped down from his role as the RNRU Director of Rugby (DoR) to concentrate on his day job as Commander Air in HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH, the Royal Navy's new aircraft carrier.  Read on as he reflects on the past two years.

What was the most enjoyable part of the DoR job?
Most definitely the Rugby – my focus has always been on the main output and ensuring we don’t lose sight of it. Getting to know and mixing with the respective player groups and Training Support Groups (TSGs) has been really interesting – we’ve got some really committed people both playing and managing, all willing to go the extra mile to make it work.

There’s a lot of Rugby talent within the Service; not all of it is readily available, we do need to track that talent carefully, maintaining routine contact during the quiet periods and establish an understanding of the respective career paths, such that we can always maximise the volunteer outputs properly.

While last season not every outcome went our way, it was a surprisingly rewarding period, particularly seeing those committed volunteers coming together, aligning around the derived strategy and delivering a worthwhile product. Our core values are spot-on, and I think we deliver in abundance. While it’s not perfect yet, it can’t have been that bad – the volunteers are all still smiling and we have won some championships too.

You laid down your aims for the 2015/16 season, how, in hindsight, do you think your aims were met?
Overall I think we did alright. This past 2 years has seen the RNRU deliver a lot of rugby and we have been relatively successful in delivering credible performances when it mattered. I am delighted that the new approach to the Women’s output has gone well, and, while there is still a lot more to do, the initial foundations are now coming together under the new management and coaching team, continuity will be the key to success.

Our Mariners are always difficult to call, because they are routinely stretched in their day jobs and despite some massive efforts by their TSG, delivery of a well-honed team capable of winning sometimes simply comes down to the intensity of the operational programme and their professional commitments.

The U23s won their IS Championship following a gradual build-up through the season. I was delighted to see the amount of new talent coming through the system. Watching them train and then play, it is easy to see that they have the potential to be a strong generation which bodes well for our production of future winning Senior squads.

As for the Senior squad, that was a very competitive group this year. Having had a relatively long build-up with IDRC15 we were much better placed, and with the influx of some sharp new U23s, plus a number of senior players coming back into the fold, it had a very exciting look to it right from the off. We had some concerns in the specialist areas to overcome, and had to call in a whole host of favours to deliver our front row throughout the season.

In terms of general management, having learnt a number of important lessons, we eventually settled on a more sustainable TSG set-up, supported by some premiership mentoring and coaching, and perhaps more importantly the presence of some key permanent staff.

From a Representative supervisory perspective there were far less single points of failure to worry about, and I felt greater commitment was evident. As such the whole thing looked and felt much better this season, employing the right people in the right places.

In general, I was immensely impressed by the various TSGs who dugout delivering everything required of them in support of their squads. I think all the playing squads will remember their 15/16 season journey.

If you were to consider the coaching and game trends; what has been the biggest change you have noted as DoR?
There is no doubt that the modern game requires a very different approach. As Head Coach of the Senior XV between 2006 and 2008 my budget was much smaller, the support package was much simpler. We only met every two weeks and our set-up was about the right size for what we needed in order to deliver a similar output.

Today the modern Head Coach demands a lot more, both in time and resource, to be able to deliver the required athletic output. He needs players at a certain level of conditioning with the necessary training time available to tune their tactical understanding and team coherence. The balance between achieving the right conditioning and absorbing the tactical know-how is what drives the length of the camp and the fixture list.

There is a much greater focus in the modern game on winning the collision and dominating the contact area, hence the players need to be bigger, quicker and generally more robust. As such we have to work harder at generating the competitive player size required, while at the same time acknowledging the rules and regulations that drive play in such a way that tactical considerations should sometimes be based on how best to exploit the referee’s perception of what is going on - after all field position and penalties win games – and in some instances even decide IS championships.

Where do you think the RNRU should now focus their priorities in the Representative area?
For me - the key to RNRU delivery is undoubtedly the voluntary input. While you can buy in contracted support, if you subsequently take the ‘Navy’ out of ‘Navy Rugby’, you’ll unpick the whole reason for doing it in the first place. Finding service volunteers can be difficult at times; and while many say they want to do it – not everyone can commit the time required. Establishing a succession plan in the current manning climate has proved to be very difficult. There remains an ongoing requirement to hook and field potential TSG talent early, such that personnel can be sufficiently mentored alongside their career plans into something that will be ready to deliver properly at the Senior level.

How are you going to keep the rugby juices flowing as you step away?
I have been looking forward to re-joining the frontline for some while now; it’s a very exciting project and I doubt there will be any problem maintaining a Rugby connection. I am lucky enough to be in a unit with a large Ship's Company and we already have a strong core team from both codes developing. Scotland is quite proactive when it comes to rugby, so I’m confident there will be plenty of opportunity in the near future. We’ll continue to develop our core talent and who knows, if the build programme allows, we might even be in a position to compete in the Navy Cup before we head off on trials.

What are your last thoughts as DoR?
I am delighted to have been given the chance to do this role. It was an honour to be involved especially when you get to work in a charged environment amongst similarly minded people - but to be fair there’s a lot of pressure to get the show on the road, and to keep it there requires even more effort from everyone. Without doubt it’s been hard work, but it has been rewarding and there are a few of us who will have shared some meaningful moments together, requiring some deep reflection about whether we were doing the right thing.

Confidence can easily be dented in this environment and every volunteer needs to have strength of character to deal with the inevitable challenges. As such we need to really look after our delivery teams and make sure they are fully supported – or else the volunteer output will dwindle and Navy Rugby will suffer.

Having worked closely with Mark, the First Sea Lord, Admiral Jones, in his role as the President of the RNRU, said:
“Lombardi taught us that 'the achievements of an organization are the results of the combined effort of each individual' and that is as true of Navy Rugby as anywhere. It takes a particular character to put the foundations in place to engender success, from grass-roots community rugby up to the senior level. Mark has invested a huge amount of personal effort and time in a squad of talented players, thus creating a winning environment. Clearly there have been some less joyous moments on that journey, as we tasted hard defeat; but they were always placed in context and, as is the nature of sport, they were rapidly analysed, acted upon and overcome. It is absolutely fitting that he leaves his post as the Director of Rugby for the Royal Navy Rugby Union having guided the side to victory during the 2016 Inter Services Competition. It can be quite rightly assumed that he will bring the same success that he enjoyed on the pitch to HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH as her first Commander Air.”

The Chairman, fellow Executive Committee members, players and the rest of the RNRU family wish Mark all the best as he turns his full attention to the task of bringing the aircraft carrier out of build and through her trials programme.  We look forward to seeing him down south next year when HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH makes her first entry into Portsmouth.

Images by Alligin Photography / © Geraint Ashton Jones © Sophie Deller