Bilal Yusuf was the Director of Rugby/ Under 20 Head Coach at St. Joseph’s College during the 2015 and 2016 seasons. During the past two years there was a significant improvement in the overall performance in St. Josephs’ rugby at both Senior and Junior levels. His role as Director of Rugby was to overlook the [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

The World of Joes Rugby through the eyes of the outgoing Coach


Bilal Yusuf

Bilal Yusuf was the Director of Rugby/ Under 20 Head Coach at St. Joseph’s College during the 2015 and 2016 seasons. During the past two years there was a significant improvement in the overall performance in St. Josephs’ rugby at both Senior and Junior levels. His role as Director of Rugby was to overlook the development of rugby at St. Joseph’s from the under 20 age group right down to under 10 level. In addition he functioned as the Head Coach for the under 20 team.

An IRB Level 2 qualified coach as well as an ASCA Level 2 Qualified Strength and Conditioning coach, Bilal has extensive coaching experience at School, Club and National level which include stints with Royal, CR&FC, CH& FC and the Sri Lanka Under 20 National team.

The Sunday Times spoke to Bilal Yusuf about his experience as Director of Rugby and Under 20 Head Coach of St. Joseph’s during the past two years in order to get an indepth understanding of how the different cultures at different institutions impact on the performance of a team and how he planned and strategised to ensure sustainable success for Joes rugby.

What was your overall experience coaching St. Joseph’s in 2015 and 2016?

Having both played and coached at Royal, when I took over at St. Josephs I was immediately struck by the difference in the Rugby Culture at the two Schools. As a result of the absence of a winning history in rugby the Josephians lacked an appetite to do well and win.

When I took over in 2015 the overall understanding of the game amongst most players was poor while player’s commitment to training also left much to be desired. Not having a rugby ground was also an issue. It was quite an eye opener for me, as in my previous coaching stints players attendance at practices, access to facilities such as grounds and a gym was never an issue.

What were the challenges you faced when you took over St. Joseph’s rugby at the end of the 2014 season?

When I took over after the 2014 season, the Joes rugby fraternity was in a rather despondent state. The reason for this was that the Joes supporters believed that the 2014 St. Joseph’s team was capable of emerging league champions in 2014 since that team had twelve coloursmen and also been champions at junior rugby. However the 2014 team, did not fare up to expectations winning only 3 games that season. So when I took over in 2015 the confidence among the remaining players was very low. My main challenge for the 2015 season was to instil in the players to understand the relationship between hard work and success which was lacking.

The Josephians were an improving force and they looked a promising side for the upcoming season

How did the 2015 team perform?

The main goal for the 2015 team was to defeat St. Peter’s whom they had not defeated for over 15 years. The off season build up for the first game of the season against St. Peter’s was massive. Without doubt the 2015 Joes rugby team worked harder than any other Joes rugby team in the past which effort ensured a historic victory over St. Peter’s after fifteen years.

During the pre season we also got the players mentally prepared to ensure positive body language during games, how to overcome the fear of failure and playing through pain. The 2015 St. Josephs team also finished fifth in the School Rugby League, which is the highest league standing a Joes rugby team has achieved in its sixty year rugby history.

How was the 2016 performance?

Maintaining the high standard set in 2015 in the 2016 season as well was always going to be an uphill task. A total of eleven players from the 2015 team had left while there was no Second XV feeder system from which replacements could be found. The Rector and the Rugby Committee agreed with me that if we could remain in the “A” division for the 2016 season and develop a Second XV system, Joes would be strong league contenders in 2017.

There was criticism from some quarters due to us not recruiting enough players from outside for 2016. However excessive recruitment would have been unfair by players who had come up through junior rugby as they would have been deprived of the opportunity to play at First XV level. The Rector was of the view that we should only recruit players in positions where there were no players within the College and that priority should be given to the internal talent within the School. I was in agreement with Rector’s thinking. In my opinion excessive external recruitment devalues any success a team may achieve. Also if parents and players at junior rugby see limited opportunity to represent the team at First XV level due to a high number of externally recruited players that could lead to students within the School stop playing rugby.

The 2016 team had a slow start to the season losing the first three games. The team failed to qualify for the top half of the competition in the second round, as the tournament format was such that if you fail in your first few games, you had to compete in the bottom half in the second round. However we were able to win all our games in the second round and win the Plate Championship and remain in the “A” division for 2017 which was our main goal before the 2016 season.

There was still some special performances in 2016 where Joes held Royal to a draw and thereby break a sixteen year losing streak against Royal. Joes also notched up the highest score for the league season against DS (80–7) in the following week. The team also entered the semi-final of the all island Under 20 Sevens tournament. The Under 19 team entered the Super Sevens final in both legs. This was the first time a Joes rugby team had entered a final in a Sevens tournament. The under 19 Sevens team also defeated Isipathana in the semi-final of the first leg of the Super Sevens tournament which is only the second time a Joes rugby team has defeated Isipathana in its rugby history.

How would you rate St. Joseph’s in comparison with other “A” division schools?

The comparison is interesting. If you look at the playing numbers I would say St. Joseph’s has the smallest player base among all “A” division schools. Joes is the only “A” division school where Rugby is not one of the top 2 sports in the School. Cricket, Swimming and Basketball are the top three sports in the School while Rugby is probably the fourth sport.There is a reason for this. These three sports have a winning legacy and hence attract talented athletes.

There are approximately only around 100 players within the Joes rugby program with around 20 rugby players in each age category from under 10 to under 20. This is a big disadvantage when compared to the playing numbers at more renowned Rugby Schools such as Isipathana, Trinity, Royal and St. Peter’s where you would have around 500 rugby players in the school rugby programme. Even a school like Science College has a total of 350 rugby players within the school out of a total of 1400 students which means 25% of the students in the School play Rugby. Furthermore when player numbers are higher it creates competition for places in the team which in turn drives performance. So lack of player numbers was a huge challenge for Joes rugby. St. Joseph’s is also a School which places a heavy emphasis on academics and as such the amount of time a Coach has with players is limited compared to other Schools.

Did you put any systems in place to increase the player numbers at Joes?

Yes, firstly we set up a Second XV system in 2016. This gave any player who could not make it to the First XV team an opportunity to gain the necessary match experience for the following season. By forming the Second XV squad we managed to attract more players to training as well as to identify some new rugby talent at St. Joseph’s. We played a total of ten Second XV games this season against University sides.

Secondly we introduced tag rugby during Physical Education periods during school hours at junior level to popularise rugby within the College and draw more players for rugby practices. The junior coaches did an outstanding job with this initiative as the numbers at training at junior level improved significantly. Also a Junior Rugby Academy was set up to further enhance the skills of the junior level players within the School.

Another area of focus was on parent/player education with regard to the life style required of an athlete. Sessions were held to educate parents and players on key aspects such as balancing studies and sports, good nutrition, sleep, hydration etc.

How was the support received from the College authorities in the two years?

The support we received from the Rector Father Travis Gabriel and the Prefect of Games Father Milan Bernard during the two years was excellent. Since the Rector had a good understanding of the game it was easy for the Coaching Staff to implement processes and plans to develop the game within College. Also during the two years the Rector, the Rugby Committee, the Hornets, the Sports Council and coaching staff worked very closely together to develop the overall rugby standard within College.

So despite the success over the past two years what was the reason for the change of coaching staff for the 2017 season?

Well to be honest it came as a bit of a surprise to all of us. Our coaching contract was for a period of three years ending 2017 October. One of the main goals set for me and my Coaching Staff by the Rugby Committee when we took over Joes rugby in 2015 was to build a team in three years in order to be league champions in 2017. At the end of the 2016 season I had a meeting with the Rector and we discussed plans to achieve the target of becoming league champions for 2017, and even at that stage there was no indication of any change in the coaching structure. We were confident that the groundwork had been laid in 2015 and 2016 for Joes to be strong contenders for the league championship in 2017.

However there was a sudden change of heart on the part of the Chairman of the Sports Council who wanted a change in the Rugby Committee and Coaching Staff for reasons best known to him. I guess with the pressure exerted by the Chairman of the Sports Council on the Rector to change the Rugby Committee and Coaching staff, the Rector had no option but to go along with this decision which led to the premature end of our coaching contracts. The Rector however was kind enough to direct that our entire Coaching team be compensated by payment of salaries upto the end of December 2016.

How do you see the Joes rugby team performing in 2017and beyond?

I personally believe St. Joseph’s have the potential to become league champions in 2017. The reason for this is that unlike the Joes rugby teams of the past, the 2017 team has tasted success against the main rugby schools during the past two years and now have the self belief that they can compete and beat any team. The 2017 team has 9 senior players and several Sri Lanka under 20 and under 18 players in the team. So with this experience as well as international exposure within the team and some talented players coming through the Second Fifteen system, I believe that St. Josephs could go all the way in 2017.

What are your future coaching plans?

I have decided to take a short break from coaching for a year to focus on my Strength and Conditioning Training Company. I hope to resume coaching in 2018. I also have plans of going overseas in the coming year to work with some international coaches to further enhance my coaching skills.


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