About Manu Samoa, and Sevens Head Coach, Damian McGrath

By Mika Kelekolio* ,

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FORMER MANU COACH: Damian McGrath.

FORMER MANU COACH: Damian McGrath. (Photo: File)

This article is the result of an independent investigation to find out whether (1) the Review Panel’s Report is objective and fair, and (2) what really went on with the Manu Samoa Sevens under Head Coach Damian McGrath, and whether the Board was correct in terminating his employment contract.

What prompted this investigation are two stories in the Samoa Observer of 8th October, 2016 captioned “Coach breaks silence” and “Damian McGrath issues statement” which caught my attention the very day I arrived (for a family fa’alavelave).

They refer to the dismissal of Mr McGrath as Head Coach of the Manu Samoa Sevens by the Samoa Rugby Union Board (SRU) for apparently failing to meet two Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) stipulated in his contract which are for the Manu Samoa Sevens to: (1) rank 8th overall in the world at the end of the 2015-2016 World Sevens’ series and, (2) qualify for the Rio Olympics.

On 29th June 2016, following the failure of our Sevens Team to qualify for the Olympics, SRU empanelled a team to review the Head Coach’s performance. Members of the Review Panel were:

• Matafeo George Latu, Vice Chairman of SRU, Chair

• Mr Brian Hopley, Director of Rugby, 

• Soifua John Schuster, Ex-All Blacks

• Ms Virginia Tuatagaloa, SRU Human Resource Adviser, co-opted to assist the Panel

It’s worth noting here that Mr Schuster withdrew after a couple of weeks and attempts to interview him were met with a no comment response. However, further inquiries reveal that he was frustrated by the ad hoc manner in which the Panel was run and the uncertainty of when and how often the Panel would meet. 

It is also worth noting that Latu was a member of the interview panel that appointed Mr McGrath.  Some individuals interviewed firmly believe that he should have stood down to ensure that the outcomes of the Review were fair and objective. 

On 1st September almost exactly two months after it was convened, the Panel presented its 11-page report to the Board outlining its ‘findings’ and ‘recommendations’. The findings are:

•  McGrath had satisfactorily met and sometimes exceeded the performance required of him by SRU;

•  SRU in moving towards winning international games as evident in winning the Sevens Cup in Paris;

•  Manu Samoa Sevens were making clear  and quantifiable progress and had progressed from 10th in 2015 to 9th in 2016; and, 

•  The failure to qualify for the Olympic whilst disappointing, remained a viable future goal with more money and better resources.

The recommendations are, Mr McGrath:

•  Continues as Head Coach until August 2017; and,

•  Recommends the appointment of [new] Assistant Coach, Manager and other staff.

What really strikes me with this Report is the lack of any real and factual information about what really went on in our Sevens campaign; why our team failed, how much of this can be attributed to Head Coach McGrath’s leadership, and what was his relationship like with the Sevens Management and players.  

Instead, it talks about S.R.U. Strategic Plan, Governance, Resources etc. and the advice from H.R. expert Faamausili Dr Matagialofi Lua’iufi. (There’s no denying Fa’amausili is probably the best in the Pacific in the field of human resources). Rather than delving deeper into some of the reasons why the campaign failed, why our team’s performance was so erratic, whether there were management issues facing the team that was impacting on players’ performance, and whether terms and conditions of the Head Coach contract were met, the Review Panel slalomed around all these major issues only to come up with a document that lacks objectivity as it relied entirely on the report and say so of the Head Coach.

As will be revealed later, some comments in the Report which could have only come from the Head Coach or the Director of Rugby through emails sent to him by the Head Coach are not very flattering on the Sevens management. In fact, they cast aspersions on their characters, in particular, Assistant Coach Muli’agatele Brian Lima.  McGrath’s report that the Panel relied on, is nothing more than bundled together sheets of flowcharts, graphs and stats without explanatory notes. Yet, there were other documents that were available to the Panel, as Latu admitted during our telephone conversation, like the very detailed 20+ page report of Assistant Coach Lima that they could have also used. 

Assessing an employee’s performance is a holistic process, that not only takes into account specifically set goals that the individual works towards but other factors like how one relates to his co-workers, how effective he communicates with them, whether or not he helps create a working environment the lifts the performance of his team as well as ensuring that all members perform as a unit to ensure the team and subsequently the whole organisation achieve its overall goals. 

In McGrath’s case therefore, it was pertinent that the Panel interviewed others who worked with him and perhaps carried out a peer review both his colleagues and players. Had this happened, I’m sure the Report would have come out with a totally different conclusion.

There’s not much S.R.U. Board can do now except perhaps to consider what action to take against those responsible for the Report which McGrath is now using to mount his legal threat for unjustified dismissal. (That’s all there is at present, legal threat!)

Since the Report’s release and McGrath going public with his comments, S.R.U. and some of its officials, especially the Chairman, have been on the receiving end of some strongly-worded attacks in the media. I’ve also been told that the whole issue has since gone viral on the social media and that much of the comments are venomous and unprintable.

Fortunately, I don’t have a Facebook or Twitter account, so I don’t really know what has been said. (It’s a good policy to have if you want to keep your blood pressure down and stay sane and in good health, while ensuring that your time is used productively!)

At the Board’s meeting when the Chairman of the Review Panel, Matafeo George Latu presented the Report, except for its Chairman Tuila’epa Malielegaoi who asked that McGrath be given another chance (this was confirmed by Latu), members were virtually unanimous in their decision to terminate his contract. 

A Board member spoken to said he was surprised that the Chairman of the Review Panel, Latu, did not vigorously defend his Report. 

However, this was strongly disputed by Latu when he finally rang after a week of trying to get hold of him. He asked, “Why would I not vigorously defend it when it is my Report?” 

So when I read McGrath’s comments that the “Review is meticulous and very supportive of him as Head Coach”, I scratched my beard and thought, why hasn’t anyone from our media looked deeper into this whole issue and find out what really happened?

Question started flooding this old head like: If the Review Panel’s Report was meticulous and supportive of McGrath, why did the Board decide to discontinue his service? Did the Board have information that the Panel didn’t? Did the Board not trust the Panel? Did the Board base its decision purely and solely on McGrath not meeting the two KPIs? 

In the employment world, terminating employees’ contracts for not achieving set goals happens every day everywhere, be it in sport, the corporate world or the public service. Poor performance is just not tolerated anymore except perhaps in Samoa. And it’s more so in sports because it is not only driven by big money now. For rugby mad nations like NZ, the pride and mood of their people, rise and fall with their All Blacks performance.

Sponsors of the All Blacks, for example, put up large sums of money only because they know they play to a winning formula. The Black Magic (yacht racing) on the other hand, is struggling to find sponsors because it has failed to win back the America’s Cup despite several attempts. 

Watch what will happen to Wallaby Coach, Michael Chieka. It matters not that Australia came second in last year’s World Cup or that they played better against the All Blacks than any other team had done this year. The simple fact is, near enough is not good enough. He will go. Very soon too.

But isn’t that what the Board was asked to accept? Although we did not achieve 8th ranking, we came “agonisingly close”. That’s good enough. We did not qualify for the Olympics, but with more resources, it’s still a viable future goal. That’s good enough too. 

Most of us will recall that it wasn’t long ago that local coaches like Dick Tafua, Stephen Betham and Fa’amaoni Lalomilo, despite our team doing far better under their leadership than it had done under McGrath, (we were ranked 4th in the world under Lalomilo’s leadership, come to think of it) they still found themselves being forced to move on. And like most Samoans, they accepted the Board’s decision, fair or not, and moved on. They did not rush off to a lawyer to have S.R.U. issued with a legal threat. 

What was even noticeable then is the deafening silence that followed, as hardly a voice was raised in their defence. 

So, why is everyone jumping up and down about McGrath’s termination of employment? 

As things are at the moment, as this investigation has uncovered, McGrath’s lawyers, Preston Russell of Invercargill, New Zealand, have written to S.R.U. demanding an apology for unjustified dismissal as well as compensation for thousands of dollars, and payment of his contract to March 2018.

Now, here’s the interesting bit. Those of you with knowledge of New Zealand will think it’s rather strange that, McGrath who hails from England and has never lived in New Zealand and may not even know where Invercargill is, has gone all the way to the bottom of the country to find a lawyer. On the other hand, did he not have one in England given all his 15 years with England Rugby Union Sevens working in various coaching support roles?

That is, unless he was sign-posted there by someone connected to S.R.U. who hails from Invercargill or has connection to that place and may even use the same law firm.

Whether or not one agrees with the action taken by McGrath, one thing is certain. This whole issue would not have arisen had the Chairman of the Review Panel not sent him a copy of its Report.

Asked why he didn’t seek the Board’s approval, Latu said that he made a personal call based on the principle of natural justice, as McGrath had been left with no money to feed his wife and family as he had lost his job after only 8 months. 

But, wait a minute. Isn’t that for McGrath’s lawyer and I.R.B. to worry about? Which hat exactly was Latu wearing when he chaired the Panel? During our conversation, Latu keeps saying that he didn’t want to say much because of his position in the Union. 

When I pointed out that the issue with McGrath is a contractual one where natural justice may not apply, Latu disagreed saying that “natural justice trumps everything.”

Asked again why the same natural justice principle was not extended to the Assistant Coach who is mauled by the Report, and now without a job, Latu said he was going to do that later.  

Whether Latu’s acted properly, the worrying fact about the Report, as said earlier, is that it relies entirely on McGrath’s own report of the campaign as well as his self-assessment. No evidence exists of any comments from anyone including members of the Management team who had travelled and worked closely with McGrath and the players during the campaign. 

It is not surprising therefore to see McGrath’s huge influence on the outcomes of the Report.

As one respondent cynically put it, S.R.U. could have saved money and time had it asked McGrath to write the Report himself.  

According to the Report, players as well as the C.E.O. of S.R.U. and Assistant Coach Lima were consulted. Information I was able to obtain says that only three players were interviewed - two NZ-based and one local. This happened the day before the Report went to the Board. Although the C.E.O. was contacted around the same time, no comment from him is in the Report. The Assistant Coach was rung at 11pm. By then, it would have been far too late for any comments he made to go into the Report.

One cannot help therefore but ask whether the real reason for their inclusion under “Consultations” is to make the Report look credible. 

The difficulty I faced investigating this story is that, unlike New Zealand, people here are reluctant to talk which, in the context of Samoa, is understandable. I have to respect that and look for other ways to confirm that information at hand was accurate.  

On the other hand, the eight people, both here and in New Zealand, who took time to respond to my questions, were a great help, especially the one regarding the relationship between Head Coach McGrath and the Sevens Management. 

It was obvious from the responses that McGrath wanted to get rid of both the Manager and Assistant Coach from very early on in the campaign. The Report’s recommendations also confirm this. McGrath: 

• Continues as Head Coach until August 2017; and,

• Recommends the appointment of [new] Assistant Coach, Manager and other staff.

Getting rid of the Manager and Assistant Coach seemed to have consumed Head Coach McGrath. 

At the beginning of June for example, while the campaign was still full on, a meeting was hurriedly convened between the Vice Chairman, CEO, Mr Hopley and Mr McGrath, and Manager Masunu Talapusi and Assistant Coach, Brian Lima. It was prompted by an accusation by McGrath that both Lima and Talapusi were not competent to continue in their respective positions. 

To support his contention, McGrath produced an unsigned letter purporting to have come from ex-trainer Mr Luke Stephenson. When I rang Mr Stephenson who is now with the Hawkes Bay Rugby Football Union last Tuesday (01/11/16) at 4:20 pm, he absolutely denied writing any formal letter or having anything to do with the letter. He wasn’t happy, he said, that his name was being used this way as “I get on quite well with Mace and Brian”. He could not believe the accusation made about them by McGrath.  

There may well be legal ramifications for this but that’s not our issue here.

Of his own relationship with McGrath, Manager Talapusi says that it was fantastic from the outset and he was really looking forward to working together with him to produce results especially with such a young exciting team. But as time went by, it began to deteriorate and this might be due to several factors but mistrust was the major one. 

“McGrath just didn’t seem to trust me and Brian around the team. I just couldn’t work out why”.

Accusations made against the Sevens Management should have been thoroughly investigated to establish whether or not they were true, by inviting them to respond, as well as seeking the views of the captain and senior players.

Under sub-heading, “The need to encourage and maintain loyalty” the Report says that:“Immediately before the departure of the Sevens for Monaco, there was a serious conflict arising from a disagreement between the Head Coach and the Assistant Coach, in respect of coaching decisions and approaches, which were then unfortunately and inappropriately or perhaps deliberately shared with players who were then invited to take sides……… In the normal case, a Head Coach chooses his own team…. In this case it was chosen for him without any [of his] input….this is unsatisfactory and should not be allowed to happen again.”

This could have come only from McGrath. Also, Monaco is the repechage game where we failed to qualify for the Olympics. Did McGrath have the (Michael) Cheika virus of finding a distraction to divert attention away from his own poor performance? 

This is what Lima says about team selection:“Selection of players for all tournaments is made entirely by the Head Coach. There is no discussion, or joint consideration leading up to the decision on the final squad. I’m not privy to any information about the selection of our travelling 12 nor am I involved in discussions about the basis of selection”

Funnily, McGrath himself more than confirms this when he noted in his self-assessment report under Activity 1 in the Selection Section that there were “No Selectors”.

Manager Talapusi also wrote: “Brian Lima was never given enough time [to be involved in coaching] or even invited to actively participate in trainings; most of the time he was used only to make up the numbers for live practice. Even in team selection, he had no say at all.”  What is apparent from all this is that Head Coach McGrath has been extremely economical with the truth. It looks like he had the Chair of the Panel and the Director of Rugby by the proverbial!

In Sydney, another example again, Lima was banned by McGrath from joining the warm up sessions before games. The reason given is that the players did not like him “pushing them” before the matches. When the captain and vice-captain were asked whether this was true, they responded in the negative, adding that one of the NZ-based players might have said something to the Head Coach.  

 A rugby fan from overseas reading this would probably say, “What a way to treat a national and international rugby icon!” And they’re right. No one knows who McGrath is, but rugby fans the world over certainly know Brian Lima, the chiropractor.

As said earlier, I’ve only met Brian Lima this week when I interviewed him for this story. Throughout this investigation and with all the information I’ve been able to gather, I’d tried to remain objective and impartial as much as I could, but a lump keeps moving up my throat because of what has been uncovered.

Did McGrath have a strong dislike for Lima? If he did, this could be put down to the publicity surrounding Lima’s court appearance just before the campaign started, as well as the two not being familiar with each other’s way of operating, and the cultural chasm between them. 

Sadly, as time went by, that dislike instead of subsiding, had become more apparent and intense and was getting to the players, especially the local ones. 

One must therefore ask why the Director of Rugby who was in communication with McGrath and who would have been fully informed of what was going on, didn’t tell him that Lima’s appointment as Assistant Coach was part of S.R.U.’s succession plan and whether or not he approved of it, he had to ensure that they had a good working relationship. 

Unless of course he was paddling McGrath’s waka.

Moreover, why didn’t the Director of Rugby raise these issues with McGrath when the Panel interviewed him during the Review? 

As mentioned earlier, one requirement of McGrath’s employment agreement under “Coaching and Management” is to ensure that a sound interpersonal relationships and effective communication among management members existed. Another is to ensure that the team environment is conducive to optimal team performance.

From what’s been revealed so far, it is obvious that the team environment was far from “conducive to optimal team performance.” Anyone who is familiar with what happens to children of an abusive parent in a strained relationship can vouch that the negative impact of such a situation on their performance, especially at school, can be devastating. So, can anyone blame our players for playing so poorly through most of the campaign?

There’s more. According to Lima, there was uncertainty and confusion among players from the start as Team Values and Team Rules were not made explicitly clear compared to past campaigns. Things like being present during prayer time were made optional. There was no stern talking to or warning for players who were late for training as well as a relaxed attitude to curfews, as to when players were back in their hotels when going out at night. 

Discipline on and off the field is one thing that all successful teams have. Ask Julian Savea and his Hurricanes mates who now know that all too well. They found this out the hard way in South Africa earlier this year when they broke the curfew by five minutes after a night out. Their reputations meant nothing as they were immediately stood down for one game. 

For non-Samoan coaches, especially those who’ve never before dealt with Samoan players, understanding cross-cultural communication is a must. I don’t know who was on the interview panel that hired McGrath but I’d be very surprised if they didn’t question him about his ability to cope and thrive in a Samoan environment and to communicate with people whose first language isn’t English, his skill and experience in resolving conflicts, or his understanding of issues that often arise when two cultures clashed.

I believe that these and other requirements of McGrath’s employment agreement should have all formed part of the measuring kit used to assess his overall performance.

So, did Head Coach McGrath “meet or exceed” all that was required of his role as the Panel says in its finding?  Was his dismissal fair? You be the judge.

Manager Talapusi said that things got so bad that it came to a head in Paris when Head Coach McGrath “stopped Brian from saying a word to the boys in front of the whole team. Brian questioned Damian about it. The whole thing could have erupted into an ugly scene but for the cool heads of those present.

“Some senior players were visually upset and unhappy with Damian as they believed Brian had a right as Assistant Coach to address them.

“[This] totally contradicted McGrath’s claim in an email he sent the Director of Rugby about the incident, that he had the total backing of the players. 

“To me, that was the beginning of the end [of the campaign] as we headed off to London, even with the victory from Paris behind us”

Later, when asked what had happened by the Manager, McGrath’s terse response was:

“It’s either Brian or me. I’m sick and tired of all this cultural bullshit!” 

Yet, in Section 2 of the Review Panel’s Report under “Other relevant considerations to assessment” part (d) titled “Player Feedback”, it is stated that Head Coach McGrath “Respected Samoan culture.”

If he did, well, he certainly has a strange way of showing it.

In another situation, yet again, regarding support messages in Samoan from His Highness the Head of State and the Chairman of SRU received after the team’s poor performance in Las Vegas which was read out to the team and translated word for word by one of the staff members, McGrath reacted furiously, especially to the Chairman’s message which was in typical Tuila’epa speak, “leai gi kou ake; ka’uvalea le akunu’u”, by telling the Manager: 

“I don’t think that was appropriate and I don’t care if it’s from the Chairman or Head of State. There will be no more messages [read to the team] from now on.

“None of the players complained as they took the Chairman’s message to be a light-hearted, normal Samoan parenting words to motivate and urge them to get their act together.”

Again, had the Panel bothered to consult the Sevens Management instead of just the Head Coach, their Report would have presented a vastly different picture.

With regard to KPI (1) requiring the Head Coach ensuring that our Sevens Team was ranked 8th at the end of the campaign, the Report says that “Whilst this KPI was not achieved, it is agonisingly close in doing so.” It went on to say that there was “progressive improvement in the ‘average ranking’ from 9th to 6th.” 

But wait a minute! KPI 1 is quite clear. It did not ask for an ‘average ranking’ but an overall World ranking of 8. Neither did it ask for a ranking that was “agonisingly close” to 8. 

Using statistics as a form of reporting can have its advantages. But some people sometimes, use it to confound readers and to hide the truth. Using ‘average ranking’ in the report to say that we moved from 9th to 6th is not only misleading; it’s outright deception because what it doesn’t show is that under Head Coach McGrath, for every one step forward, we took another three backwards as evident from the results.

After coming 7th in Dubai we dropped to 13th in Cape Town; 9th in Wellington before coming 10th and 13th in Sydney and Las Vegas respectively; 11th in Hong Kong after being 5th in Vancouver, and 11th in London after being 5th and 1st in Singapore and Paris respectively. 

So where is the “progressive improvement” referred to in the Report?

As said from the beginning, this article set out to find whether (1) the Review Panel’s Report is objective and fair, and (2) what really went on with the Manu Samoa Sevens under Head Coach McGrath and whether the Board was correct in its decision to terminate his contract.

It’s the conclusion of this writer that the Report of the Panel that reviewed Head Coach Damian McGrath’s performance is neither objective nor credible. I certainly don’t blame anyone for thinking that it is all about protecting McGrath while casting aspersions on the reputation of individuals involved in the Sevens campaign like the Manager and the Assistant Coach.

Furthermore, the Report does not only raise questions about the professionalism of the Review Panel, but the integrity of the members.

I also believe that some serious questions need to be asked about the role Director of Rugby, Mr Brian Hopley, to whom McGrath reported, played in all this. He must shoulder a major share of the blame. He also needs to declare where his loyalty lies? S.R.U. or I.R.B., his paymasters? If it’s the latter, then maybe there is no place for him in Samoa.

I rang Mr Hopley for an interview for this article as well as his views on the appointment of the new Sevens Coach, but he was adamant he would not discuss Mr McGrath’s case. 

I’m hoping that after people had read and seen the facts for themselves, the wave of vitriolic and vermonous comments in the social media will ebb and Samoa’s good name will once again surface for a gasp of clean fresh air.

Finally, I’d like to thank all those who were part of this investigation, both here and New Zealand, for their time and willingness to share information. Without them, this article would not have been possible.

 

____________________________

 

*Mika Kelekolio is a past political columnist for the Samoa Observer and Assistant CEO for the Public Service Commission. He’s now a freelance writer.

 

(All costs incurred by this investigation (hire of laptop, taxis fares, rental car, lengthy mobile phone calls both locals and overseas, internet cafes, printing, etc.) which amounted to several hundred dollars were borne by the author himself. He did seek assistance from the NZ High Commission for this project but was unsuccessful.) 

© Samoa Observer 2016

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