In his desk drawer at The Sportsground in Galway, where Connacht will welcome Leicester Tigers on Saturday afternoon, Pete Wilkins keeps a copy of a letter sent to him by the Rugby Football Union.
The original arrived around 16 years ago in reply to his request for advice on how to begin a coaching career. Wilkins insists that the tone was “very polite”. Still, the message must have been disheartening.
“Essentially, it said professional opportunities were very limited and often go to former professional players,” explains Wilkins. “It was: ‘Good luck, but there’s not much you can do other than keep doing your badges’.”
“It’s almost too much of a cliché to believe, but I glance at it sometimes,” he adds, laughing. “I get it. Gee whiz, they must have letters from people every week saying they want to be a coach. There’s no axe to grind but it’s a nice little reference point and I keep it with me wherever I can. Thankfully for me, it fuels the fire a bit more.”
The fire had been lit – or reignited – a few months previously, and completely by chance. Connacht’s senior coach has travelled an extraordinary path to his current position, passing through a series of sliding doors.
Raised in Winchester, he attended Christ’s Hospital School. At 18, having represented Sussex age-grade teams, Wilkins flew out for a season with Eastern Suburbs in Sydney before returning to start a Geography degree at Durham University. It was there, however, that he “drifted away from rugby” in the realisation that he was not quite good enough for playing to become a vocation.
Wilkins graduated, moved to London and endeavoured to “work out what my place in life was going to be”. There were odd jobs, including bar work, as he pondered sports journalism or teaching as longer-term options. Meanwhile, he helped his stepfather, Roger, who was prominent in the educative field of thinking skills, with proofreading and organising conferences.
By 2005, his family had relocated to the South West of France and, while visiting them that October, Wilkins attended a Heineken Cup match between Toulouse and Scarlets at Stade Ernest-Wallon. The hosts won 50-28, scoring seven tries in the process and inspiring an onlooker that had spent the previous five years “almost entirely away from rugby”.
“The city was alive for the occasion,” Wilkins remembers of a Eureka afternoon. “But it wasn't just the passion for the team. There was a real passion for the style of play that Toulouse where playing and the history of that, which really captured my imagination.”
Purpose had been found. The experience encouraged Wilkins to study the methods of Pierre Villepreux, the guru of the distinct style that has become synonymous with Les Rouge et Noir.
Villepreux coached Toulouse to the French national title in 1985 – their first for 38 years – to foreshadow the club’s dynastic success. In the words of Wilkins, most appealing was his practice of “dissecting how teams and players move around the field and how you get this cohesion amongst unstructured chaos”. Hold that thought.
Back in England, Wilkins completed his level one RFU coaching award. It was at this stage that he sent a letter to Twickenham. Despite the response, he persisted. Australia was, he thought, “a country that always championed the craft of coaching” and “found a way to perform above their composite parts”. The next step made sense, then: “Bugger this, I’ll go to the other side of the world.”
Wilkins landed a place in Queensland Rugby Union’s community department in 2007. Sent up to Townsville, his “patch” stretched a five-hour drive north to Cairns and a five-hour drive south to Mackay. One tournament he regularly oversaw took place in Mount Isa, a mining town some 1,800km in-land from Brisbane.
Reflecting now, Wilkins believes that the hardest step for prospective coaches is piercing “the pro-team bubble”. In that respect, his own chance cropped up in 2011. During the season that the Queensland Reds ended up as Super Rugby champions, they needed a team analyst for paternity cover over a two-week trip to South Africa that took in games against the Lions and the Stormers.
Ewen McKenzie enlisted Wilkins, who impressed and became head of analysis in 2012. That morphed into various coaching gigs starting, boldly, with the responsibility of lineout throwing.
“I was still an analyst at this point and put together a project on some of the trends of successful lineouts in Super Rugby,” Wilkins says. “I presented that back to Ewen and said there were opportunities to explore. He took one look at the report and said, 'Great, you’ve got the job'.”
McKenzie’s trust brought a “baptism of fire”, not least because Wilkins was suddenly guiding two Australia hookers in Saia Fainga’a and James Hanson without ever having fed a lineout in his life.
Yet the leap of faith allowed Wilkins to foster his own relationships and earn trust with players. Eventually, he moved across to the role of defence coach. In 2015, a similar position became available at Edinburgh and Alan Solomons recruited him. Wilkins and his wife, Sarah, took “an enormous decision” and embraced another adventure with young boys Harry and Oscar in tow.
Over two seasons in Scotland, Wilkins witnessed Connacht’s ascension to the Pro 12 title under Pat Lam with “a really attractive, possession-focused style of rugby”. He relished trips to Galway and felt that his story chimed with that of the province, whose staff and supporters marched on the Irish Rugby Football Union headquarters in January 2003 in a bid to save the organisation from being disbanded.
“Connacht has this whole rich history of survival against the odds and proving other people wrong. Without being too melodramatic about it, that resonated with me because you know, my own journey had been a bit different. It had been about proving people wrong and finding different ways to succeed.”
Wilkins joined Connacht as defence coach in 2017. He was promoted to senior coach for the current campaign, giving him charge over team attack. Andy Friend, the head coach, has coined a Connacht mantra: “Fast, relentless, adaptable.” A haul of 27 tries in eight United Rugby Championship matches, with eight more over two European outings against Stade Français and Leicester, shows they are living up to it.
As Wilkins explains, a priority has been to “de-structure” the phase-play habits of previous years. Under Lam, for instance, Connacht spread their forwards across the field in a 2-4-2 framework. Wilkins wants unpredictability to whisk opponents out of their comfort zone.
“There's that sweet spot within the chaos where the opposition can't see what's coming but you’re aligned enough that you’re all working together. A large part of that, for us, is movement and getting a flow to our game without being too structured.
“Doing that brings an energy and a momentum and a spirit that maybe isn't there if you're overly-structured with players waiting for their turn to contribute. We want the them to feel that they can be involved in any moment of the game at any given time and to bring their individual attributes to it.”
If that sounds abstract, Wilkins’ take on a 46-18 thrashing of the Ospreys last November, in typically brutal Sportsground conditions, puts meat on the bone. Mack Hansen, Shayne Bolton, Oran McNulty, Sammy Arnold, Caolin Blade and Conor Fitzgerald all crossed the whitewash as Connacht’s ambition and skills defied the elements.
“When you play into a strong wind and you have to keep possession, you can become very predictable and you can run into brick walls,” Wilkins reflects. “As long as their defence is sound system-wise, opponents can pretty much sit there and pick you off until you either run out of energy or run out of ideas.
“To manage that, and not just to survive but to thrive in that scenario, you can't be predictable. You can't just follow a playbook. You need players working off the ball to pick up second touches and chase movements into parts of the field that they would normally be playing in.
“Essentially, you need to empower players to chase involvements and release them from the fear that there are any wrong answers. With that, come opportunities that you might not have seen coming.
“We got a couple of line-breaks from kick-off receipts and it wasn't structured playbook execution. It was simply guys wanting to be involved, wanting to touch the ball, wanting to be a threat at the line.”
Also part of Friend’s coaching team are Mossy Lawler, Colm Tucker and Dewald Senekal. In the quest to “get players on the same page within the chaos”, Wilkins says, there has to be open-mindedness: “If you are going to liberate players to that extent, you can’t then bash them with ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers after the event. You need to really explore their decision-making.”
In many respects, Connacht’s meeting with Leicester is a fascinating culture clash. A month ago, it took the destructive scrummaging of Tigers’ replacement front-rowers – James Whitcombe, Julián Montoya and Dan Cole – to ward off an upset at Welford Road. Connacht thoroughly deserved the losing bonus point sealed by Jack Carty’s smart drop-goal.
Wilkins is excited. He says it will be a “cool challenge” for his team to assert themselves as Leicester attempt to seize control with kick-pressure, breakdown disruption and set-piece power. But Tigers, he points out, are “not as predictable as maybe they are accused of being”. In the world of Wilkins, that is a compliment.
The contrast between his journey and that of Steve Borthwick is interestingly sharp as well. One is a former England captain who has transitioned quickly – albeit with a huge degree of diligence and a fierce drive for self-development – and is making a compelling case to succeed Eddie Jones in 2023. Wilkins has taken a remarkably winding road.
He says two strands of his rugby background stand out as constant reference points. The first is the work ethic it took to be an analyst and how that shaped his awareness of meaningful moments in matches that help a team to win. The second could be described as a healthy chip on his shoulder.
“Without that playing background and that automatic standing that you might have, at least in the first year or two of your coaching career, the craft of coaching – how you deliver a message, how you structure a training session, how you man-manage individuals while reviewing a game, how you influence mind-set leading into a game – is really important to me,” Wilkins finishes.
“I try to stay relentless in improving myself around that because I had to upskill quickly to make up for the fact that I hadn’t played the game professionally and didn’t have the reputation [of a player]. It needs to be a bit of a point of difference for me.”
If he could rewind to his mid-20s for a moment, Wilkins might just thank his RFU pen pal.