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Q&A – Harvey Biljon: I’m proud to see so many of my players in the Premiership

Jersey Reds director of rugby Harvey Biljon

Former Wasps No.9 Harvey Biljon has forged a successful career in coaching with Blackheath, Cornish Pirates and Jersey, where he has been director of rugby since 2015. He offers NEALE HARVEY his thoughts on the game and reveals his personal ambitions.

Where are Jersey in terms of returning to training?

Jersey is ahead of the mainland but it’s important that we’ve gone through each stage for our players to get used to new protocols. We’ve moved on to stage 2A now, then we have a small break before going on to 2B. We won’t have to worry about stages 3 and 4 because the Championship has made a decision that we won’t go back to games until there’s no restrictions on travel and there’ll be supporters at matches.

How difficult was it keeping players motivated during lockdown?

I’ve got to give our staff a lot of credit because our players have had everything going on, from interaction with the medical and S&C team to the coaches and different WhatsApp groups. There’s been all sorts to keep the guys going while having a bit of fun at the same time, but we’re all happy to be back now and hoping to get games sooner or later. We’ve seen a huge difference after four or five months off and the energy and enjoyment among the players is terrific. I think some time off has been a real benefit for the guys.

Would you like to see things moving a bit quicker now?

I’d like the RFU to be a bit more proactive than reactive now, so yes.  Let’s set a fixture list, set some dates and work towards that rather than waiting for decisions to be made elsewhere and then reacting to what’s being said. Everyone understands the risks and nobody wants to do anything silly, but at the same time we need to energise a group of professional rugby players to get out there and develop and grow our game. If you look at our environment in Jersey, everyone’s been tested and we’ve got a good contact tracing system, so we’ve got everything in place and we can’t be that far away from getting things going again.

Clubs like Nottingham and London Scottish have gone part-time, did Jersey consider doing likewise?

The club had its plan for the next few years and we wanted to maintain that. We’re very proud of the fact that we’re a professional outfit on the island and we’re proud of how we represent Jersey. Working within our budgets we can maintain fully professional status and that’s got to be attractive to many players, while making sure that they’ve got the ambition to go to the Premiership. If you come into a full-time environment here and are a standout player in the Championship, you deserve an opportunity higher up, as we’ve seen with many former Jersey players. I’ve had fantastic support from our chairman, Mark Morgan, and remaining professional is the right way to go.

We’ve just seen another two Jersey players, prop Alec Clarey and lock/flanker Janco Venter, heading to the top-flight with Saracens, that must be satisfying?

I think there will be one or two more announced as well who will also make the step up and that’s something we’re enormously proud of and hope it continues. As much as we want to do well ourselves, we also like to think that players come to Jersey because they’re going to be well coached and cared for by the club to give them that opportunity to step up. Alec Clarey was a student at Hartpury College who we saw something in and, as you’ve seen with a lot of front rowers like Harry Williams (Exeter), Jake Woolmore and Jake Armstrong (both Bristol), they have a year’s apprenticeship and then really move on in the game.

You’ve specialised in putting together eclectic squads, picking up guys from all over the world as well as the Championship, so how do you manage that?

Jersey’s a unique place and we do have guys from all different backgrounds. We always stay within the EQP requirements but something that brings us together is having a good cross-section of people. For example, our full-back Kurt Heatherley came from an Aussie Rules background with Hawthorn and he’s an English-qualified guy who we’ve given a chance to and will back ourselves as coaches to deliver. We can learn from his background and allow him to flourish in Rugby Union here. We really make an effort to look at the raw material of individuals and we try to recruit guys who have characteristics that we want in our group. I’m excited about the squad we’ve put together, we just need some games now.

You’ve also brought in some standout Championship players in Lewis Wynn (ex-London Scottish) and Ryan Hutler (Bedford), so attracting guys looks pretty easy?

When I arrived at the start of 2015, it was actually pretty difficult. We’d been near the bottom for two seasons and had to really encourage guys to come, but over the years our reputation has grown and we’ve stabilised in the league, which is important. There are a lot of good rugby players out there who now see us as an attractive team to play for and we recruit for how we want to play and put a plan together for the next 12-18 months. There’s an opportunity here for guys to focus on their rugby, but there are also opportunities on the island to find a good life balance and they can do things outside the game like work experience with some of our sponsors. I think that’s a healthy environment for players to be in and we pride ourselves on that.

You must be pleased to have added ex-England hooker Rob Webber as forwards coach?

Leader of the pack: Jersey Reds forwards coach Rob Webber. Getty Images

He’s very excited to be on board and I’m encouraged by both of my assistant coaches, Rob and Ed Robinson. They’re two young English coaches who are going to continue to develop and I’m confident they’ll go well. Rob could have carried on playing in the Premiership but we’ve had a good relationship for a long time, going back to our days at Wasps and Blackheath together, and he wants to give something back to the game and coach so this has given him that opportunity. With the way we operate as a team here it’s going to give him an opportunity to create a pack of forwards of his own, then mould and develop it, and that will only be good for his career.

Steve Boden coached under you at Jersey and is now head coach at Doncaster. Do you hope Rob and Ed can go on to top jobs themselves?

I’d like to think so. There’s a lot of good coaching going on in the Championship and I’d like to see more coaches from the Championship get an opportunity to coach in the Premiership as well. We’ve had a few guys do it but it’s not a competition to be neglected and don’t underestimate the amount of hard work that these guys put in. It’s good for our competition that guys like Lee Blackett (Wasps) and Glenn Delaney (Scarlets) earned their stripes in it before getting chances in top jobs and that should continue to grow, but it’s all about waiting for that right opportunity. Don’t underestimate the hardship some coaches have in the Champion-ship – guys don’t have all the resources available to them but work incredibly hard at developing players. There’s a lot to come from Championship coaches.

Having served a long and successful coaching apprenticeship at Blackheath, Pirates and Jersey, presumably you aspire to be a DoR in the Premiership yourself?

Absolutely! I know you’ve got to be patient but if you talk about someone who’s earned their stripes, I’ve certainly earned a few. When you’re playing you always want to push yourself to play at the highest level and as a coach those aspirations don’t change. I’ll continue to do everything I can to develop and grow and be ready for that position if it arises. You don’t know what decisions are made around Premiership teams but I’d like to think they wouldn’t disregard anybody who puts themselves forward from the Championship because a lot of guys are very capable.

What do you make of Ed Griffiths’ 76-page proposal to revolutionise tier two rugby?

Someone needed to do something. Let’s be honest, the RFU haven’t come up with much for the Championship other than cutting funding. There will always be things people agree or disagree with but if Ed’s giving us encouragement by giving us options to consider, that’s a real positive. There’s a lot of detail to go through but there are a lot of good ideas and we need to consider and embrace that rather than being negative and stick with what we’ve only known. I’m not saying Ed’s report is entirely the way to go, but let’s consider options and move forward with it.

What element of the report do you particularly like?

One that stands out for me, which is something we’ve prided ourselves on at Jersey, is regarding lowering the age demographic of our players. There’s a group of players between 20-24 in the country who, if they want to be Premiership players, need to be out there developing and learning their trade – and there’s no better place to do that than the Championship. They need game time and exposure to give them that opportunity. You mustn’t underestimate the value of a seasoned older professional to help younger guys through but you can certainly reduce the overall age profile within the Championship.

Griffiths has called for ring-fencing for four years – your view?

Does it give the game an opportunity to press ‘reset’ so that whether you’re in the Premiership or Championship, it allows clubs to focus on where that focus needs to be? I think that’s good as long as we do continue to focus on improving resources like our training grounds and stadium facilities so it’s not all about what happens on a Saturday. We need to invest in everything so that supporters want to be part of the club and come and watch us. I don’t know how you deal with the Ealing situation – they are obviously very ambitious to go up – but clubs maybe need to take a step back and try to work out what’s best for the majority – Premiership and Championship – moving forward.

Another of Griffiths’ proposals is for academies to be removed from Premiership control and an American-style ‘draft’ system introduced – what did you make of that?

It’s interesting and from a coaching perspective you’d need to build a relationship with the coaches running those new external academies, but at the same time you don’t want to be pushed down the semi-pro route. I agree you need to give younger guys an education and interests outside the game, but it’s up to individuals whether they want to give rugby a full go and they need opportunities to do that. What education/work apprenticeships/ internships look like alongside rugby is something that would need to be looked at carefully, but it’s not a negative.

What do you think of the ‘special relationship’ being forged by Bedford and Northampton?

It’s smart from Northampton and it helps Bedford, but let’s see how it’s managed throughout the season. It’s encouraging that Premiership teams have got enough confidence that young guys can go and play rugby in the Championship and trust that competition to deliver what they need. Sometimes a Prem club just wants a player to get a game or two and that doesn’t really work. Guys need to go out there and embrace a different club, where it becomes a real rugby education rather than it just being a one-off. I’d like to think that any young players who come to Jersey will buy-in for the season to get the greatest value from going through all the tough times together.

Another Griffiths proposal centres around divisional games, a new knock-out cup and the restoration of a Championship XV – thoughts?

I don’t really understand how the divisional stuff would function at this stage but bringing back the Championship XV – brilliant! It was a success when it was played in 2012 and 2014 and it’s great for players, coaches and the league. There’d be a lot to consider with a cup but it’s encouraging there are different options, rather than the current Championship Cup situation where you can end up playing the same teams four or five times a season. People moan- ed about the old British and Irish Cup but as soon as it went everyone realised what a great competition it was. We liked it at Jersey and Pirates and enjoyed playing teams from Ireland, Wales and Scotland – why did we scrap that?

Assuming you get playing again, what are Jersey’s ambitions?

We ended sixth with the way the table was merited when it was stopped but had only played 14 games, so with our run-in I would have backed us to push up a few places. It’ll be tough with Saracens and Ealing and you have to put Pirates and Doncaster among the full-time challengers as well, but we aim to be a consistent top half team. It’s about developing players and opportunities but if they’re doing well the team will benefit and we will push our way higher up the table.

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