15 Jun 2020

Sport: Former Manu 7s coach on missing Samoa, life in Germany

1:13 pm on 15 June 2020

The former Samoa sevens coach Damian McGrath has fond memories of his time in charge but admits the job is intense and not for the faint-hearted.

Samoa sevens coach Damian McGrath.

Photo: Facebook / Manu Samoa

The Englishman was fired in 2016 after the Manu 7s failed to qualify for the Rio Olympics and a lawsuit claiming wrongful dismissal remains unresolved.

But he remains the last coach to lead the team to a tournament victory on the World Series.

"For all the issues that were off the field the players were fabulous and the people were fabulous, and my wife and I have so many happy memories," he said.

"In Samoa life in general was just great day to day - we loved being there. Probably the worst memory in Samoa was losing in overtime to Spain the Olympic qualifier when we were in touching distance of the Rio Olympics, and that was heartbreaking."

Samoa in the changing rooms after winning the Paris Sevens.

Samoa in the changing rooms after winning the Paris Sevens. Photo: World Rugby / Martin Seras Lima

His replacement as Samoa coach, Sir Gordon Tietjens, quit last month after three and a half years in charge, with the men in blue languishing in 13th place in the World Series.

"I had some great talks with Gordon when I was with Canada," he said. "We'd sit and have a coffee or just speak sometimes because I could obviously empathise with a lot of what he was going through off the field and on the field."

With a passionate public hungry for success and a Prime Minister who doubles as Chair of the Samoa Rugby Union, McGrath who is now in charge of the German sevens team - said it was a demanding role.

"Samoa's a pressure-cooker of a place in terms of big rugby is the number one game in town and everything you do is front or back page news whichever way you go," he reflected.

"Rugby's quite well established in Canada - it has a profile. Germany is completely the other end of the spectrum. Whatever we do here it has very little impact on the national media where football, handball and basketball are very much front and centre, so we can work away without that type of pressure.

"It's nice to just get on with your job and not worry about anything being reported negatively every time you have a hiccup or a stumble."

New Beginnings

After leaving Samoa McGrath spent almost three seasons in charge of the Canada men's sevens team, leading the Canucks to their maiden World Series win in Singapore in 2017.

Canada lift the 2017 Singapore Sevens title.

Canada lift the 2017 Singapore Sevens title. Photo: World Rugby

He was relieved of his duties in May last year after an injury-ravaged squad could only reach the Cup quarter finals in one of eight events.

In September he was appointed head coach of the German men's sevens team on a five year contract, with the goal of qualifying for the World Series and the 2024 Paris Olympics.

Germany's squad of university students, full-time workers and sport soldiers triumphed in the opening leg of the Sevens Challenger Series in Chile in February before a fifth placed finish the following week in Uruguay.

"We won 11 out of 12 games on that Challenger Series (including back to back wins against PNG) and we were disappointed not to win both weekends," McGrath reflected.

With the future of the World Series, including the Hong Kong World Series Qualifier, still uncertain because of Covid-19, the veteran coach admits his team is in a state of limbo.

"We were confident going into Hong Kong that we could maybe take that last step that the German team has stumbled at over the last few years and get on the World Series, which is every player's dream. It's been an encouraging start but the disappointment is we can't see any light on the horizon - I'm not sure when rugby's going to restart again."

The German sevens team has resumed large group training in Heidelberg and Hanover, after social distancing restrictions were eased but, while hopeful, McGrath can't see a way international sevens can be played in 2020.

"It relies on travel and contact and all the things that allows Covid-19 to travel," he said. "If we can somehow get a vaccine or something to allow us to do it then yes but in the short to medium term I can't really see us playing any rugby at the moment."