Richie Williams brings Welsh pedigree to add to style of Cambridge
From South Wales to Volac Park, via Belgium and Hungary, we explore the interesting career route taken by the new head coach at Volac Park.
When Cambridge make the short trip to Ampthill on October 6, in some ways it will mark a surreal moment for Richie Williams.
Growing up in south Wales, Williams had a rugby ball in hand almost from the moment he first started school.
Having lived in Aberavon, and then started playing the sport at Maestag Rugby Club when he was five, Williams was a season-ticket holder at Neath RFC where he watched some illustrious names in the pantheon of Welsh rugby.
Now, having become the head coach at Cambridge this summer, he is in regular contact with some of those luminaries and will be pitting his wits against one of them this season.
“I had a season ticket from the age of six and used to go with my dad, and on the Sunday used to play mini rugby,” said Williams.
“It has shaped me for certainly my coaching career those early experiences of watching games and playing rugby.
“I think one moment for me was at the secondary school I was at in Wales. We had a really strict headmaster where if we were playing any other sport at lunchtime, like football, he would come out and take the football off you and give you a rugby ball.
“Rugby has always been a big part of our family and how I’ve been brought up.
“I speak to my dad almost on a daily basis and I say it’s very strange to have Paul Turner [the Ampthill head coach] in my phone book and Mike Rayer, the director of rugby at Bedford; I had a conversation with him around a couple of our players there over pre-season.
“It’s very strange looking back 20 years and watching them play. I remember watching Paul Turner play at Newport, and he was probably one of my role models when I started playing and then I will be coaching against him at Ampthill.
“It’s a very surreal experience but something I’m very much looking forward to.”
It was those formative years that have shaped the way in which Williams believes the game should be played.
Seeing the attacking style of the likes of Jonathan Davies, Scott Gibbs and Rob Howley created a philosophy for the young Williams in his playing days, and even more so now as a coach.
The prospect of coaching had always figured strongly for Williams, but with no clear direction in mind, having studied French, law and PE at A-level, he went to Trinity College Carmarthen to study teacher training and a sport degree.
“I played rugby to a good level in Wales,” he said. “I always had an ambition to try to play to a really high level, but I remember going back to my old primary school and delivering a coaching session and probably from that moment I quite liked the thought of teaching, particularly teaching sport and PE.
“I think the three were linked – playing rugby, coaching rugby and the teaching – and there are aspects in that which are all very similar.
“You look at people like Graham Henry, who was one of my early role models, and Ian McGeechan and they have come from teaching backgrounds.
“I think because they had teaching backgrounds, and Brian Ashton is another example; guys that were teachers but then went into full-time coaching.
“That probably crystalised my thoughts about becoming a teacher, and at that time I could still play rugby alongside that to a fairly good level as well.
“They just seemed to marry into each other really well.”
On the pitch, Williams represented the Welsh Universities against their English and French counterparts, before he headed to teach at Oxford Brookes, combining it with a role as a community rugby coach while also playing for Chinnor in National League Two.
Williams’ next move though, took him overseas. He coached in Antwerp, Belgium for two years in the first division, and that grew into coaching the national women’s sevens team and helping them get to the top level in European rugby.
It was a good learning experience for the young coach, one he believes taught him valuable lessons about delivery and communication.
Returning home, he became the England Counties under-20s head coach and also guided Amersham & Chiltern in National League Three.
Williams was also doing consultancy work with the Hungary RFU, putting systems in place to develop the game and increase participation in the Central European country.
“Those experiences that I’ve had have definitely shaped me for where I’m at now in my coaching career,” he said.
“I think the big thing is building those relationships with people, building that trust. I think coaching is all about learning from a coaching perspective and a playing perspective as well.
“The big thing I said when I first met the players was ‘don’t be afraid to make mistakes; try things as we’re here to support you and make you better people and better rugby players’.
“It’s like that learning environment so there is an obvious link with teaching you’re there to make people better people, to try to develop them and to try to give them some knowledge.
“We can have that two-way relationship. That is something, over time, I have developed with my coaching.”
As a fly-half or full-back in his playing days, it is perhaps easy to see why Williams’ focus will be on attack at Cambridge.
But he believes that with the coaching team they have in place – which includes Simon Leader, Darren Fox, Darrell Ball and Finlay Barnham – it will enhance all areas of the squad’s overall game.
“I think I was quite an attack-minded player,” said Williams.
“I always enjoyed looking at opposition weaknesses and trying to strategise at fly-half how we could give ourselves opportunities to score.
“What I’ve tried to do during my coaching career is put that into place on training nights, trying to give scenarios to players where we’re working on our decision-making skills and replicate scenarios we would find in games on the training field.
“It’s something as a player I really enjoyed. I’ve always been an attack-minded player, probably as a coach as well; I’ve tended to focus more on the attacking side of the game as opposed to the defensive side of the game.
“But the older I’ve got and the more I’ve coached, I’ve understood there needs to be that balance between the two. You can focus too much on one side of the ball and that has a detriment to the other side.”
As a student of the game and with Williams’ Welsh pedigree and a desire for attacking rugby, it is quite possible that the style of rugby for which Cambridge has long been associated will return to Volac Park this season.