Success not just defined by wins and losses
Bermuda begin their Nacra Rugby Championship campaign tomorrow with a warm-up game against USA South in Atlanta and a definition of success for the season that will not be based on wins and losses.
A side in considerable transition — only ten of the squad that travelled to the Bahamas last year are involved this weekend — Bermuda have been hard hit by injuries, retirements, departures from the island, and work commitments.
With other long-serving members of the squad such as Peter Dunkerley, the captain, Conor McGlyn, the flanker, and Tom Healy, the scrum half, closer to the end of their careers than the beginning, and Bermuda find themselves at the start of what is expected to be a long rebuilding process.
Four years ago the national team beat Guyana to win the Caribbean Championship, and for Roedolf van der Westhuizen, the Bermuda player/coach, winning a trophy, or not, was an “appropriate measure of success at the time.”
The intervening years have not been kind and relegation to the North Zone Cup League was the order of the day two years ago. Defeat in Nassau last year left Bermuda in the second tier, and this year they face tough games away against Mexico (May 21), and Cayman Islands (June 19), and play Bahamas (June 4) at home.
Part of the problem has been the island's longstanding reliance on overseas players, a source of talent that has dried up as the economic downturn continues to impact Bermuda's demographics.
“The lack of new eligible players in Bermuda is a symptom of the island changing,” Van der Westhuizen said. “However, on the flip side of that rugby has done a hell of a lot of good work to invest in our youngsters, and we are now starting to reap the benefits.”
Several of those young players, Camren Caines and Calum Maule among them, will be involved tomorrow in Atlanta and Van der Westhuizen hopes they will become the bedrocks on which a new team is built.
“The last three years have been tough, I don't think this one is going to be different, it's still very much a building season,” he said. “That's why I say we are not focused on trophies, or necessarily qualifying for the World Cup, obviously if we do that, fantastic, but the aim for this season to me is small successes.”
Success in Van der Westhuizen's terms falls into three parts: the integration of young players into the side; the implementation of a more expansive game; and to instil the squad with a sense of fun.
Developing young players comes with its own problems not least of which is the cost of travel, which in rugby, like other sports that do not get significant funding, is largely borne by the players.
“I want to see a certain number of youngsters coming through and being regulars in the side,” Van der Westhuizen said. “That is the first measure of success for me as a coach, and that's not withstanding financial difficulties, I want to make sure we get the best youngsters involved regardless of their financial situation and whether they can afford to travel or not.
“I want to make sure they are getting the exposure they need to and to carry the Bermuda team for the next five to ten years.”
A new expansive game plan has been largely forced on Bermuda, who are well known in the region for a fairly predictable, forward-driven approach.
“If you ask anybody in the Caribbean Championships who has played against us they will tell you our game plan is simple,” Van der Westhuizen said. “It was successful four years ago, but it became predictable.
“We are looking to bring in an alternative game plan, which we think is more current, up to date and harder to defend. If this game plan works, that will be a success.”
Implementing those season-long goals begins tomorrow in Atlanta against USA South, where Bermuda's 22-man squad will be put through their paces over 100 minutes, rather than 80 minutes of rugby.
“It's about fitness, it will be a tall ask, but in the long run an additional 20 minutes in the game is going to beneficial to us. It's going to be like playing on top of a mountain in Mexico.”
Van der Westhuizen is also hoping to discover if players such as Caines, who turns 18 this month, is “one for the future” as he suspects.
Being able to combine the rawness of the next generation with the experience of the older players will be key to Bermuda's chances of success on any level over the next couple of months. And while the focus is on the future, it is not all about immediate change.
Dunkerley will continue to lead the side, although Van der Westhuizen said this decision had been discussed at great length with the captain. While the coaching staff are beginning to identify potential successors, the belief is that no one is ready to take over just yet.
“He [Dunkerley] knows he's getting to that age where he is going to want to hang up the boots, but obviously it's difficult to just pull a captain out of a squad and not have someone there [ready] to take over from him,” van der Westhuizen said.
“Also, Dunks is a fantastic captain, and as long as he makes the side on merit I don't see the point in not selecting him as captain. If it comes to a point where he is just making the side because he's captain, then it's a different story.”
Bermuda: Adam Richards, Aidan Mills, Aldo Campbell, Aldon Campbell, Ben Green, Bennet Gibson, Calum Maule, Camren Caines, Chris Laplaca, Chris Stafford, Conor McGlynn, Jahan Cedenio, John Jake Barnes, Michael Halbert, Nigel Burgess, Peter Dunkerley, Tom Edwards, Tom Healy, Dan Cole, Paddy Graham, Tashon Edward DeSilva, Roedolf van der Westhuizen.