Ross Stewart gets ready to bid farewell to Cambridge Rugby Club
Director of rugby to depart after two years in charge
When the final whistle goes on Cambridge’s season against Fylde on Saturday, it will also bring to an end the reign of Ross Stewart as director or rugby.
It has been an eventful two years at the helm, which has seen the euphoria of promotion from National League 2S replaced by the search to retain the status and gain a foothold in National League One.
Stewart was the recommendation of previous incumbent Rowland Winter, who was heading off to Coventry, as the pair knew each other from their Northampton Saints days.
It was a first senior coaching role for Stewart, who had primarily worked in youth development at the Saints, and a new introduction to the National Leagues.
Adding to the baptism of fire was that Stewart only had four weeks to shape a squad for Cambridge’s first foray into National League One for three years.
“With all those things, actually to get where we got last year, minus that terrible ending, we did really well, I think. It’s easy to say it when you don’t get relegated,” he said.
“I thought the boys did really well under really tough conditions. I had a coaching group that I knew very little about, to be blunt.”
It was a different approach heading into his second campaign, with a new coaching team and greater emphasis placed on analysis.
One of the prides of Stewart though, is being able to field three senior teams each weekend.
“We haven’t cancelled a fixture this year because of a lack of numbers, which I think is a huge credit to the club and the physio team and Darren [Messenger] and those guys,” he said.
“I talked a lot about getting good people in who want to get better on and off the pitch.”
There have been plenty of highs as well.
In terms of results, the wins at home to Loughborough Students and away at Rosslyn Park last season, and at home to Plymouth Albion and away to Ampthill this campaign stand out for Stewart.
Seeing props David Langley and Harry Morley, who is off to Jersey, get professional deals makes Stewart proud, as does the development of the likes of Shane Moynihan and Matthew Worrall-Clare.
He was full of praise for strength and conditioning coach Ben Fitches and head physio Paul Carter, and two club stalwarts.
“The one thing this club has got is a backbone in Tracey [Baxter] and Ian [Whitby], who from a playing perspective are massive,” he said.
“What they’ve got to do is bring in a few more people and align with that vision of the committee.”
Stewart has learnt a lot about himself, having gone from working mainly with teenagers to dealing with men making important life decisions between the ages of 18 and 35.
“I came from a development world where you could afford to lose because it’s about development,” he said.
“That was ultimately the coach challenge – take that philosophy of good people, development and enjoyment to become better at rugby as an individual and then get results.
“I underestimated that challenge. Could I stick to my beliefs? I think I could, I can honestly say. Were there times when I’ve gone away from it? This year, we’ve had healthy debates.
“I’m going to walk away from here having learned a lot about delivery, about perhaps thinning it down to start with and being really specific about a couple of key things.
“I’ve learned a lot about the world of players.”
Overall though, it has been an enjoyable two years for Stewart.
“I’m really proud of what I’ve done. I’ve learnt huge amounts. I can’t thank the club enough for the opportunity,” he said.
“Realistically, being blunt, I was supported by Rowland but I was a punt a little bit on the director of rugby role – I don’t think, without being too arrogant, there was any question about my coaching capabilities – and perhaps that is the area where the club need a bit more support and Richie [Williams, the incoming head coach] might be that person.
“I’m very much on the field, in the motion, talking to players, talking rugby, rather than talking budgets.”
That was clearly one of the areas that Stewart found tough going, the work with the committee on off-the-field matters.
With little chance of the Cambridge position becoming full-time, Stewart’s commitments elsewhere had to take priority and that also coincided with structural changes at the Saints, where he is Elite Player Development Group manager. It was announced in February that he would be stepping down at Volac Park.
“Deep down I don’t think it probably was [a difficult decision] because I could feel the pressure and I could understand the frustration from the committee, and obviously that frustration from the committee frustrated me which in turn affects what we do,” said Stewart.
“Any club like this wants to be better. We brought in those three things: ‘better than before’, ‘club first’ and ‘have fun and enjoy yourselves’.
“They were the three most important things, our values.”
He heads into his final game in charge with Cambridge safe from the drop after a 33-27 win at Bishop’s Stortford last Saturday.
Vincent Hart, Louis Rawlings, Cameron Keenan, Jake McCloud and Matt Hema scored Cambridge’s tries, with Ben Penfold adding eight points.