Phil Davies: Red2Blue is the most practical framework

We caught up with rugby legend Phil Davies, the former Wales international. Phil has more than 25 years’ experience coaching elite teams including the Cardiff Blues, Scarlets and Worcester Warriors and Leeds Tykes. Phil steered Namibia to consecutive men’s Rugby World Cups in 2015 and 2019. Last year he joined World Rugby as Director of Rugby. He talks to us about his new role and how Red2Blue has helped him throughout his career.

Tell us about your new role at World Rugby

It’s been just over 12 months, so I’ve got my feet under the table. It’s a big role that encompasses four main areas. The first area is the shape of the game, which incorporates all the laws. I’m interacting with players, with coaches and with match officials about how we can improve the safety and spectacle of the game itself. 

Player welfare is World Rugby’s number one priority.

Secondly, there’s the work we’ve done with Namibia, Tonga and other emerging nations. The third area is around the match officials themselves – being involved with the international elite referees. And the final one is about training and education – how we can build capability and capacity around the world to get better coaching, get better strength and conditioning, better sports science, and better governance generally. It’s a wide-ranging role based on those four pillars.

How has Red2Blue helped you throughout your career?

In any walk of life, you get times where things are smooth and you get other times where it’s not plain sailing. I was first introduced to Red2Blue in 2003 up in Leeds. What I’ve always liked about the Red2Blue programme is that it gives you a framework and it gives you an understanding of how to recognise pressure.

The most important thing thereafter is the control of your attention and where your attention goes. Either it’s in the Blue Head where you’re on task and you’re clearly doing your job, or it goes to the Red Head where you get a bit frustrated and flustered with the environment and then go off task.

What I like about Red2Blue is there are always points of reference you can go back to when pressure comes on. I’ve always said it’s the most practical framework that I’ve used over many years in rugby. It’s very easy, it’s very simple. It’s very practical to use.

Tell us about some of the tougher moments in your career and how you got through them.

What I’ve learnt over the years is how to separate passion and emotion. When I’m emotional, I’m irrational – I’m in the Red. But when I’m passionate, I’m in the Blue and I’m thinking clearly. Thirty-seven years’ experience in rugby has shown me that there are times where you have difficulties and you manage them well, and there are times when you don’t manage them so well, and there’s a clear differential. For me during those periods it’s been about how I’ve reflected, how I’ve approached my planning and organisation to different events. Having a tool like Red2Blue to go back to has helped me to stay more passionate and less emotional.

When I’ve been passionate and I’ve been rigid in terms of following the process, that’s always helped me work through things, particularly as a coach. When you look back at it philosophically, it’s not really a difficult situation. It’s a game; it’s a sport after all, and you’ve got to keep that perspective. I think what’s allowed me to grow and to thrive during difficult periods is having a framework and an understanding of how to use it.

Are there any moments that you look back on now and wonder whether Red2Blue could have changed the outcome?

When I was coaching in Leeds, we were playing a game in London against one of the top London sides in a big cup match. It was over 20 years ago before we started using Red2Blue. Against all odds, we were winning and then a decision went against us, which ultimately cost us the game.

My thought on the decision was correct – it was a knock on – but the referees didn’t see it on the field. The new communication system between the linesmen and the referee had failed, which I didn’t realise at the time. So, they missed the incident, the knock on – and the other team scored a try and beat us by two points! 

After the game, I was ranting and raving behind the scenes in the dressing room and the referee came out and told me to be quiet. I got a little excited kicked the door and broke my toe! If only I’d have known then, one of the big things the Red2Blue framework talks about – control! I’d have realised I couldn’t control the referee’s decision; I couldn’t control the communication systems going down. I’d have saved myself a lot of stress if I’d have understood that then!

What’s the biggest driver for success in the players that you coach?

Talent is important – talent gets you through the door, but effort keeps you there. I was reading Eddie Jones’s book the other day, and he was he was talking about ‘character over cover drive’.  Alex Ferguson mentions it a lot too. Talent is one thing, but character and determination to work hard is the most important thing. I’ve been lucky to work with some world class rugby players and all the world class guys have that work ethic about them. For me it’s all about having the character to work hard when the sun’s not shining!

How do you think Red2Blue benefits a team or a business overall?

The most recent example I can give you is in Namibia. We did some individual profiling on the boys through a Gallup Strengths Finder diagnostic. They hadn’t done anything like this before and needed to develop more self-awareness. This was before Martin came in and got us involved with Red2Blue in Uruguay, and before we went to the World Cup in Japan.

Once the boys had heightened their self-awareness, it improved their awareness of others. Then, when we brought in the Red2Blue framework, the players were able to understand it and use it for themselves individually.

We used it successfully on the field to look at how we could deal with pressure moments. Different mechanisms within the Red2Blue framework would always allow us to stay on task. We’d have a trigger words – Asics and Mizuno. One was about control and the other one was about speed. Whenever we said Asics, the Red2Blue framework came in and the players understood there were aspects of the game that we needed to control.

You can use Red2Blue in a cultural sense too; you can use it to identify what your values are – respect, honesty, those types of things. Everybody says a lot about values and culture, but it’s the behaviours that drive them. We found that the Red2Blue framework was really useful in providing a point of reference, to get those behaviours to be more consistent on a daily basis.

Our values were discipline, contribute, attitude, and respect. We’d check if we were delivering them – if we were, we were in the Blue. If we’re not, we were in the Red. I’d say, ‘If we’re in the Red with our values, we’re not where we need to be; we need to get into the Blue.’ Then the boys would know what to do because the framework was there.

They might have to pick up certain people or encourage others. That practical application was only made possible by having those frameworks to look back on. And it became a common language. Communication around a common language is so important.

Any Red2Blue moments that struck you during the Six Nations?

From a World Rugby point of view, I’m thinking about the players’ safety and the disciplinary aspects. In the heat of the moment, we’ve seen some actions that have led to red cards. You think, just take a breath! Those are the moments where players will commit foul play.

If you’re applying something like Red2Blue on a regular basis, you have a clear way of making decisions in the heat of the battle, and that’s where the framework is really good.

There have been a couple of incidents over the past few games where if Red2Blue had been applied, there may not have been those types of behaviour. It’s the same for referees and TMOs when they’re in front of 80,000 people and the big screen. It’s so important to control what you can control and go through a process. That’s where I think Red2Blue could really help.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

Slow down to speed up. I’ve been using Red2Blue for a long time – I’ve done initial coaching and the advanced coaching course. A few of us – Brian Ashton, Stuart Lancaster and I have always found it useful to keep in touch with Martin and Bede and sometimes do more Red2Blue work together. Taking the time to slow down to speed up. Taking a breath.

A lot of people come up with ideas on how you can become mentally tough, but they’re just words. You need a framework to go back to. It provides you with a point of reference to deal with moments of pressure. It’s something I’d like to bring into the referee space in the next few years. We need to see how we can bring Red2Blue into elite refereeing and to match officiating.

And finally, what’s the one piece of advice that you give to everybody else?

I talk about controlling what you can control. It’s important to remember that nothing lasts forever. Always be where your feet are – meaning be present, have good values, make sure you execute, and you control what you can control. That’s how you create the best version of yourself. Those are the things that I tend to speak to people about. Controlling what you can control and making the most of your talent. Work hard to do that, and then you can add some real value.

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