Damian Welch has described his new role as Plymouth Albion head coach as a ‘fantastic opportunity’ – but says it will be up to the players to achieve their goal of returning to the Championship, writes Andrew Clayton.
The 37-year-old made the decision to hang up his boots earlier this year while playing for Merthyr Tydfil, after a career of glittering highlights such as winning the Premiership with Exeter Chiefs and the European Challenge Cup with Cardiff Blues, as well as representing Wales sevens.
In his first fully-fledged coaching role, Welch takes the helm of National League One club Albion, with current incumbent James Scaysbrook set for a move to Coventry Rugby at the end of the month.
After several discussions with Plymouth managing director, Max Venables, and commercial manager, Chris Bentley, whom Welch knows from their time together at Exeter Chiefs, the former lock is ready to get his teeth into a new challenge.
Speaking exclusively to The Independent, Welch said: “It seemed like too good an opportunity not to apply for and luckily I got it.
“I had got to the stage where my knees were telling me: ‘You’re going to be 38 next season, you can’t do much more in terms of playing’. I had some coaching experience from when I was at the Chiefs, with the Exeter University team when we got to the British Universities and Colleges Sport Championship final at Twickenham.
“I’ve always had coaching in the back of my mind, but the thing players do is put it off and think that you can play forever. But this season, my knees fell out from under me and it was time to start making that transition.
“I had a chat with Max and Chris, and the ideas they put across, about where they saw Plymouth going – not just for the rugby, but as a resource for the whole of Plymouth – was really interesting.
“The potential is what attracted me. I really enjoy it down there and you can just feel the ideas oozing out. They’ve coined this term, ‘Make Albion Great Again’ and I think that’s the driver behind it all.
“We’re fully aware of where the club used to be and in recent years it’s not where we feel it should be. It’s a rebuilding project. James Scaysbrook did a brilliant job last season, so luckily for me it’s not about reinventing the wheel, it’s just building on the foundations he put in.
“It’s a fantastic opportunity, not just for myself but for the club as well. I think it’s going to be a brilliant few years.”
High on the agenda at the Brickfields is a return to the Championship, a level Albion have not played at since relegation in 2015. Asked whether Welch sees himself as the man to take them back into the second tier, he replied: “I hope so,” adding: “At the end of the day, it’s the players who will get us there.
“My job is a little bit of leadership and facilitating them to be better, to drive us forward. Having looked at some of the footage from last season, there’s a great core to the squad and there’s no reason why the players can’t get us back there. “
After a playing career at the highest level of the sport, Welch hopes that he can take the lessons learned from time under seasoned coaches such as Exeter Chiefs’ Rob Baxter and apply them to his first solo charge.
“As a coach, it’s important to have your own ideas, but it’s natural to cherrypick ideas from those you’ve played under,” he explained.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to work with international coaches, those who probably will have international roles in the future, such as Rob Baxter – should he want it!
“At the Chiefs there, the likes of Ali Hepher [head coach] and Rob Hunter [forwards coach] were phenomenal and there’s things I learnt from them which will be put into process at Brickfields.”
The link between Plymouth and Exeter, meanwhile, will be strengthened even further by Welch’s presence. Last season, Chiefs fly-half Gareth Steenson and prop Harry Williams enjoyed a spell of coaching at Brickfields, and Welch would be ecstatic if they considered a return.
“It’s nice to have a purpose again, after eight weeks of not doing a great deal. I’ve said to Max, whatever he needs doing, to load it up because we might as well use this down time.
“It would be great to see if Gareth would come back again. It’s something we could look at, I’m hoping to speak to Harry Williams again about getting involved as he was last year in a scrum capacity.
“At the moment, because we’re all up in the air about when the season starts and nobody is certain what’s going on in their lives, let alone with rugby because of the coronavirus outbreak, it’s hard to recruit people.
“That’s the sort of stuff we’re going to push on with now. We can use this time to get a lot of prep in and those appointments are going to be key.”