Season 2020 was destined for celebration, with back-to-back wins against the Highlanders and the Lions, cementing the Melbourne Rebels as one of Super Rugby’s in-form sides, in what was the Rebels’ tenth year competing in the world’s premier provincial rugby tournament.
Entering Round 8, the Rebels stood second in the Australian conference rankings, playing with boundless adventure and dare, much to the delight of the club’s members and fans, who were incandescent with excitement.
Unfortunately, this wave of momentum was halted in the most frightening of circumstances, when the world became engrossed by the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing the cancellation of Super Rugby during the first week of March.
Days later, Ryan Martin boarded his one-way flight back to Otago, content with his contribution, but disheartened by its conclusion.
Little did Martin know, his international journey was just about to begin. As one door momentarily closed, another would soon open.
On July 28, during a sweltering Massachusetts summer’s day, Ryan Martin was unveiled as the Head Coach of the New England Free Jacks for the next three seasons.
The prospect of leading a young rugby club in a major American city known for its sporting prowess, was “the opportunity of a lifetime” for the self-confessed all-round sports lover.
“It was an amazing experience inserting myself into such a storied sports city and one which held a number of legitimate rivalries with other cities,” said Martin.
“The Boston and New York rivalry was really special to be a part of. It was genuinely heated between both cities, so those games were certainly must-wins for our club.
“We also had the opportunity to play two games at the LA Colosseum where the 1984 Olympics were held.
“The coach’s box was so high up, basically my view was like looking down on ants, and I could literally look straight down on them.”
In just his first year of Major League Rugby (MLR), Martin’s Free Jacks finished the season much like the 2020 Rebels had started – as one of the hottest sides in the competition, winning six of their final seven games, with victories over three of the final four playoff sides, including bitter rivals, Rugby United NY.
Some 16,230 kilometres away, the Melbourne Rebels were also experiencing their own late run of form, going toe-to-toe against New Zealand’s best, with encouraging performances against the Highlanders, Chiefs and Crusaders wrapping up a promising Trans-Tasman campaign.
As he watched from afar, Martin was impressed by Melbourne’s tantalising youth, resilience, and connectivity, all of which stood up under the fierce intensity of their more experienced New Zealand counterparts.
These same attributes, combined with the prized signings of Nick Stiles (GM of Rugby) and Kevin Foote (Rebels’ Head Coach), proved to be the catalysts behind Martin’s shock decision to return to Australia and become the Rebels’ new full-time Assistant Coach.
“A big part of my decision to leave the USA and come to the Rebels was my love for the leadership style of our Head Coach, Kevin Foote. He is a follow-me type leader and can drive great emotional attachment amongst the club.”
“Reuniting with Geoff Parling was also appealing. Geoff is one of the best forwards coaches I’ve ever worked with by the way he runs his sessions, which really enhances your learning. It’s easy for a forwards coach to always be yelling and screaming, but Geoff’s exceptional with his details.
“To have the opportunity to work with a crew such as this, all of whom are deeply driven and incredibly aspirational, not to mention the inclusive nature of the club from the front office staff to the rugby operations staff – returning was a no-brainer.
“I firmly believe we’re on the precipice of something truly special, and you can already see with the signing of Nick Stiles as GM, that we are going to be at the forefront of developing local Australian talent and driving high standards that are so important to creating sustained success for any club.”
Despite ‘the game they play in America’ still being in its infancy, the Martin says his whirlwind experience in New England made a lasting impact on his coaching philosophy, revealing several new insights which he plans to transfer over to his new role at The Stockade.
“American rugby is really interesting because they aren’t scared on contact - they almost wear it as a badge of honour.”
“There were a few things around the breakdown that were different and something I had never thought about. I think the NFL had a big influence on this, particularly with footwork.
“The American’s love the contact and have become really efficient around their movements, so that’s something I’ve taken away from the game and will bring to the Rebels.”
As Martin prepares for his second pre-season campaign in Melbourne, the forty-year-old believes an early emphasis on individualised training and the ability to effectively manipulate space, will be crucial in the Rebels’ pursuit for Super Rugby Pacific glory.
“I’m going to make sure that every player has their own individual plan to allow them to become world class in their position, whether you’re a rookie or a Wallaby.”
“We have a 20-week preseason, so we’ll be able to action some skill sets and get our players to become a lot more confident with what I call ‘pulling the trigger’.
“New Zealand teams are outstanding at seeing space, manipulating it, and pulling the trigger to either score or put themselves through a hole, which is something we’re going to focus on.
“I think there will be a real competition for spots amongst the playing squad, which will lead to competitive sessions throughout the year, with players vying for that starting jersey.
“This will lead to a real hunger to perform week in week out, which will put us in the best position to make our members, fans and the Victorian community proud.”