Warren Abrahams interview: 'There are highly-qualified black coaches in England – I am one of them'

·11-min read
Abrahams  - Warren Abrahams
Abrahams - Warren Abrahams

Warren Abrahams’ whirlwind few months have epitomised the chaos that Covid-19 is wreaking on professional rugby union.

At the end of spring, he was standing on a San Diego touchline preparing the USA women’s sevens squad for a shot at Olympic glory. Currently, Abrahams is filming for his YouTube channel, Coaching 4 Potential, in the garden of his partner’s grandmother’s house in Nottinghamshire.

The postponement of the Tokyo Games at the end of March preceded USA Rugby filing for bankruptcy. Abrahams was told his duties had been suspended, at which point he and his young family caught the second last flight out of Los Angeles.

A fortnight ago, USA Rugby called to confirm that the contract would be cancelled. An anxious period of limbo was punctuated, Abrahams explains, by “three or four different jabs in the heart”. The videos, he hopes, will increase his visibility in a “very, very limited” job market. Not that he is wallowing.

“In adversity, there is opportunity,” says an upbeat Abrahams. “We just need to find whatever little opportunity sticks its head out.”

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That intrepid attitude has carved out a remarkably varied career to date. Abrahams grew up in Kraaifontein in the Western Cape of South Africa, receiving a scholarship to Stellenbosch University before migrating to Windsor, England as a 23 year-old in 2007.

Either side of a brief return to South Africa to pursue a playing role, he has acquired coaching experience around the world. Abrahams travelled to Otago in New Zealand and enjoyed stints with the national sevens teams of Germany and Lithuania.

With the latter, he devised his own language to communicate with players and won the European Division A title. Abrahams estimates that he was the only black man in Lithuania at the time. He was “welcomed with open arms” and never encountered discrimination, but remembers a conversation with a senior player who told him honestly: “We have never interacted with someone like you”.

Warren Abrahams - Warren Abrahams
Warren Abrahams - Warren Abrahams

In between times, Abrahams became a popular and valued member of Simon Amor’s England sevens set-up and spent eight years at Harlequins up until 2018. He moved up the ladder, beginning as a community coach before joining the club’s academy programme. But, there, his pathway seemed to end.

“I had nearly eight seasons at Harlequins but, over my last three or four years, there were three or four [retired] players who came in over me immediately with no experience,” Abrahams recalls.

“That makes you question the hard work you are doing to up-skill yourself. When Nick Kennedy and Brendan Venter gave me an opportunity to come on board as a skills coach with London Irish [in 2016], which would have been a great trajectory for me, Harlequins refused to let me go based on a contract I never signed.

“For two years, I was sitting in the same job as an academy coach, with no opportunity. I had to resign from that position because I couldn’t sit tight for any longer. I felt that it was quite clear that they didn’t view me as good enough to ultimately take on a higher job at the club.

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“They never even hinted at that. If they did, and gave me areas to improve on, I could have gone away and worked on those areas. That information was never given to me. I had to be courageous and make a decision.

“Other coaches might have sat tight. I didn’t think I could be a role model for players if I didn’t feel I was getting respect from my peers. After eight seasons, a big chunk of my life, at Harlequins, I didn’t even get a thank you at the end. From that point of view, it was pretty tough.”

Abrahams was still officially affiliated to USA Rugby on May 25 when George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, sparking worldwide protests under the Black Lives Matter movement. He says the incident “opened up unnecessary wounds” and stirred him to “question certain things”.

“In America, I would be more aware when walking to the shops on my own in the evening,” Abrahams adds. “I would be more aware when driving myself to training. There just had to be a greater awareness of what you did in public.

“My partner is white British and we have a mixed-race daughter. She is always asked whether she is the mother when she comes through customs.”

Earlier this month, Abrahams listened to a candid conversation between Ugo Monye, Maro Itoje, Beno Obano and Anthony Watson for a special edition of the Rugby Union Weekly podcast on the sport’s relationship with race. His reaction was one of gratitude.

Abrahams  - Action Images via Reuters 
Abrahams - Action Images via Reuters

Afterwards, with a Twitter post, he proposed himself and former England women’s sevens head coach James Bailey as two black men capable of supporting an increasingly diverse generation of players in this country.

“It has been an emotional time because here we are in 2020 still having these discussions. The other emotional part is that it cost another life. Without the killing of George Floyd, we wouldn’t be having these discussions.

“Ultimately, it comes down to opportunity. The reason I highlighted myself and James Bailey [on Twitter] is that we do have [black] coaches who can coach at that high level. There is [Saracens skills coach] Joe Shaw, [former Harlequins skills coach] Collin Osborne, [Harlequins academy manager] Chim Gale, [former Wasps academy coach] Ricky Khan.

“These are guys who have been around at the elite level for a while. The question is where are the opportunities for the top jobs? If you look at the England team at the minute, there are now black players who have paved a pathway. On the playing side, we now have incredible role models for youngsters to pick up a rugby ball.

“From a coaching standpoint, there doesn’t seem to be a pathway people can see. These current young, black professional rugby players can’t see a transition for them from playing to coaching. There are no clear role models they can identify with.

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“At Harlequins, at the time, I had Collin Osborne and I am grateful for the opportunities I had. I progressed from a community coach to an academy coach. Then we hit our ceilings. Colin was stuck as skills coach for a number of years. I was sitting there as an assistant academy coach.

“Where was I progressing next? I’d built up a good reputation. At that stage, I was one of a handful of coaches in England  with their level four coaching qualification – the highest qualification. That still didn’t provide me with any further opportunities within that environment.”

South Africa’s quota system has shown Abrahams the pitfalls of positive discrimination – “people get picked when they are not ready and when they are not ready, they fail” – and he continually stresses the importance of avoiding tokenism in England.

As a student at Stellenbosch, he once refused to represent the University’s first-team because a coach described his selection as a quota choice when it had, in fact, been earned on merit. Abrahams wonders now whether he could have spoken out at Harlequins.

“I’m not pointing fingers and calling people racist, but I do think there is institutionalised racism that exists within the system without people knowing. You want to progress and rugby is a small world. People talk to each other and if you kick up too much of a fuss, someone else might not employ you. It’s almost a vicious circle going on.”

Premiership Rugby - Premiership Rugby
Premiership Rugby - Premiership Rugby

In 2013, Harlequins’ inner-London player development programme won a Premiership-wide award for its success in the local community. The scheme aimed to identify and promote potential professionals from a group of teenagers from state schools that, Abraham estimates, was 90 per cent black.

Sometimes Abrahams would need to “fight for individuals to stick around” when other coaches were keen to cut them adrift. He offers tangible examples of how a greater number of coaches from ethnic minorities might impact squads.

“Naya Tapper, who is one of the best female wingers in the game, sent me a really nice message the other day,” Abrahams says. “She pointed out what an important part of her journey I had been because of what it had felt like for her to be coached by a black coach, and for her to be able to have a conversation with someone who had a greater understanding of what she is thinking and how she is thinking.

“I found this a lot within the English system with players coming from African heritage. They are not necessarily brought up on rugby. If they are asked to go and train with an academy, their parents will be more interested in [academic] education – ‘what is rugby training?’

“A lot of the time, I found that [coaches and administrators] within those environments would not understand these young people. They would not understand their background or their story. One of the top players at Harlequins now nearly gave up the game at under-18 level because there was not an appreciation or an understanding of him as a person.

Getty Images Europe  - Getty Images Europe 
Getty Images Europe - Getty Images Europe

“There were conversations around how he was not invested or committed to the programme – he was not doing X, Y, Z and was not turning up to training. What wasn’t being said was that he had to pick up his brother from school, take a bus and then a train and then another bus to the training centre. He did the same thing on the way back.

“That is pretty good commitment to me, to put your family first and to make sure your brother gets home before getting to training. It is about understanding these individuals. You use your experiences as a coach and I have been grateful to be a sounding board for black and ethnic minority players.”

None of the 14-member Rugby Football Union board are black. Maggie Alphonsi is the sole black representative of its 61-strong council. The governing body has recognised a need to “reflect society across the organisation”. How does Abrahams think that England is doing when it comes to harnessing the playing potential of its black population?

“I believe we are missing big opportunities,” he says, highlighting a lack of black players at scrum-half and fly-half as one oddity.

“Perhaps we have to shift the lens that we wear or get the right people in [backroom] positions – and when I say ‘the right people’, I don’t mean people that fit criteria as a tick-box exercise.”

Simon Amor - Getty Images Europe 
Simon Amor - Getty Images Europe

Amor, now Eddie Jones’ attack coach, instilled self-belief in Abrahams while he oversaw England’s academy sevens team. On the search for a new opportunity again, he lays out what he can offer to prospective employers. As is apparent when speaking to him about other issues around the game, Abrahams does not toe the line.

“I strongly believe in the pedagogy of problem-based learning because it makes people better by making them uncomfortable and challenging them with an element of play. I’ve seen the benefits it can have with many players within the England sevens pathway.

“Some coaching can be very much the same and traditional within the English system and that gives me a point of difference.

“I stand out from the crowd by using original ideas with my coaching.”

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