Orchestrating the Lions’ scintillating playoff run has been head coach Andrew Britt, a New Zealander who came to the Lions in a unique way. Britt and his coaches, Quentin O’Brien and Keith Friedlander, have pushed the Lions to great heights, with another big hurdle this weekend in Albany, the Lions facing Mystic Rugby for the CR championship.
Described by his players as a straight-shooter with a cerebral take on the game, and a sharp Kiwi wit to lighten the mood, Britt, 47, took a break from his match preparation to speak with Lions old boy Mike Malone.
You went from a referee to the Lions coach. How did that happen?
I got to point where I knew achieved what I wanted to as referee in the U.S. I’d watched the Lions and could see there was a lot of talent there; I just felt the discipline in the gameplan wasn’t quite there. When the opportunity came up, I spoke with Rich Gallina, said I might be interested in throwing my hat in the ring, and here we are.
Had you had much coaching experience?
No, but I played top grade rugby in New Zealand. Also, as a referee, you probably get a better knowledge of the game than some coaches have. That shaped me up pretty well.
It’s a great run for the boys right now. Did you expect this?
We set some very specific goals around our defense, around our offense in terms of what we wanted to achieve, and around our discipline. We didn’t actually set out and say, hey we want to win X number of games. But we knew if we achieved what we set out to achieve goal-wise, those wins would come. We learned a lot in the fall season. The guys came back and put in the practice in the spring, and thus we’ve had the success.
Who has emerged as a leader?
Fuzz [Matt Mullen] is a great captain–he leads by example. Having a guy like Pat McJury–his experience has been valuable for us in terms of organizing that link between backs and forwards. If you look at where we are, a lot of it comes down to that 8-9-10 role being pivotal to any team’s success. I think we are starting to see results of that now that the guys are playing together regularly. It’s always improving—we try to improve every game–but that’s been a good part of our success.
Coming from an established rugby nation, what’s the biggest challenge coaching an American rugby team?
Getting everyone to turn out every week; it’s one of my huge frustrations. In New Zealand, anywhere close to rugby season, you wouldn’t be having people organizing a wedding or going off on vacation. We’ve been lucky in the spring but since I took over I can’t say we’ve been able to field a consistent team every week, and that’s probably the biggest challenge we face. It’s probably symptomatic of rugby in general in this country; it’s seen as a secondary sport—yup, I love playing it, but it’s not something to build my life around. In New Zealand, you wholeheartedly would.
Who was your rugby idol growing up?
I really liked Mark Shaw, who played #6 for the All Blacks. I just loved his uncompromising style. I was a big John Kirwan fan as well (All Blacks wing in the ‘80s and ‘90s). I was also a big Gavin Hastings fan—he played fullback for Scotland, and I liked the way he played the game.
You’ve had some help with the coaching.
Quentin O’Brien has been looking after the forwards and has done a fantastic job in terms of technique and cohesiveness in pack–we saw it Saturday with a fantastic pushover try from a scrum against New Haven. Keith Friedlander has been helping out with the backs and has been very good from a defense point of view. With him it’s more the attitude of defense: Anyone can make a tackle but it’s actually a choice when you make a tackle, how do you hit someone? He’s worked really hard on that–defense being an attitude.
How do you describe the Lions’ style of play this season?
We’ve worked very hard to play 15-man rugby where we get everyone involved. But at the end of the day, no one can win in rugby if they don’t dominate the physical combat, the collisions. So our strategy has been to win those collisions and have space on the field to involve everyone.
The Lions face the Mystic River Barbarians Saturday, May 7, at 2 p.m. in Albany. The winner moves on to the National D2 Quarterfinals.