Kevin Phillipson – A voyage of discovery via Premiership Rugby Scholarships

Kevin Phillipson

When American rugby coach Kevin Phillipson took the chance to travel to England on the Premiership Rugby Scholarship programme, he never expected to discover so much about the sport he’d played since the age of six.

Born in South Africa and blooded on the pitches of his homeland, the St Andrews University professor, now living in Aberdeen, North Carolina, was dazzled by the cultural differences exhibited between each individual Premiership Rugby side he visited.

Despite a 47-year association with the sport, he was taken aback by the lessons he learnt from visiting Harlequins, London Irish and Saracens, as well as Twickenham and the Rugby School.

The 53-year-old, who serves on the development board of the National Small College Rugby Organisation, says he was blown away by the incredible insight he gained from each individual club.

“What I found was that each one of the clubs were significantly different in how they presented their coaching styles and their philosophies which was really an eye opener because I was expecting the clubs to have a consistent delivery,” he explained.

“At Harlequins they talked very little and had us engaging very quickly. They believed in coaching by letting the players make their own discoveries and develop their skills.

“It was not an approach you see in the US very often. Here, if the coach tells you what to do, you do it. The whole idea of letting the players discover it themselves was very empowering and different to the US coaching style.

“The best piece of advice I received was to keep an open mind, because you are going to learn something that you have no idea that was out there.

“The biggest takeaway was understanding the commitment that Saracens have in focusing on their culture. I was so impressed that they were so focused on the idea that ‘if you don’t match our culture, we can’t work with you’.”

The Premiership Rugby Scholarships initiative is run in partnership with the Friends of the British Council and USA Rugby and aims to grow the sport in the US and in 2019 the next group of Scholarship winners will be coming to England.

Last March, 20 teenage players and 15 coaches were given a once in a lifetime opportunity to travel to England and spend a week with Premiership Rugby clubs, and applications are now open to become one of 50 US-based coaches to win Scholarships in 2019.

Playing rugby for the first time as a six-year-old, Phillipson went on to represent his provincial side Griqualand West in South Africa before heading to the States, where he only curtailed his own career after 45 years, having fulfilled his dream of playing alongside his son.

Now the professor of entrepreneurship and marketing has encouraged others to get involved in the programme in a drive to improve the standards of coaching across the Atlantic.

“I didn’t go on the Premiership trip to learn how to coach differently, I went more to learn how to bring the culture of rugby to more people in the West to get more coaches involved,” he said.

“The biggest thing we can do in the US is improve the quality of our coaches. If we do that the quality of our players will increase automatically.

“The whole experience they gave us was first class, a truly British experience, down to a full English breakfast and going to the pub to debrief. All of those things were so well put together.

“I couldn’t think of any way to make the experiences better. They gave us all the ingredients that help us to improve as coaches back in the US.”