INTERVIEW: Henry Paul putting fire into Dragons

Matt Jones - Editor 07:04 26/08/2016
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Gearing up for a new challenge: Henry Paul.

Henry Paul enjoyed a glittering career as a rugby player but admits he harboured a desire to coach from an early age.

All Blacks’ juggernaut Sonny Bill Williams is considered rugby’s Mr Versatile; he’s won two Rugby World Cups with the Kiwis and was part of the New Zealand sevens team vying for the sport’s maiden gold medal at the Olympic Games in Rio. He even won gold as a heavyweight boxer in seven fights between 2009-15.

But compatriot Paul was a similarly versatile athlete, having played all three forms of rugby. He started out playing league in his homeland and gained international caps before making a name for himself with Wigan Warriors and Bradford Bulls in Super League in the UK.

He switched codes so smoothly to union that he qualified and won caps for England. He even featured for the Red Rose in sevens too, including winning a silver medal at the 2006 Commonwealth Games.

As talented as he was, Paul is already beginning to carve out a successful career as a coach. He was Russia’s assistant when they impressed but were ultimately outclassed at the 2011 Rugby World Cup, and has just landed in the UAE where he’s been named head coach of Jebel Ali Dragons.

“I always coached, from the age of 16,” Paul said. “From my local rugby league club, I was coaching the under-4s and under-6’s. That’s what made me go down the teaching line when I finished high school.

“I did a year of teacher training before I joined Wigan. I thought I maybe wanted to be a teacher so I always had the education thing at the back of my mind.

“Once I became a professional player that’s all I wanted to do, but when I got the chance to coach during my playing career I would always take the opportunity to do camps, go and work with the academy, with the analysis guys, working with video.

“I’d always done bits and bobs, then I went to Russia and it accelerated. Going to the World Cup was amazing so I learnt a lot about the administration side, budgeting, equipment, stock taking, those sorts of things. So I feel very comfortable now.”

Despite having experienced more sports, won more accolades, lived in more locations and occupied more roles than the average 42-year-old, Paul insists his thirst for knowledge and personal improvement knows no bounds.

“I know I’ve got a lot more to learn, but as a player I was always learning, even when I was retiring I was learning off guys,” adds Paul. “I think it’s a really good quality I have and one I try and share with everyone I work with, whether I was at school back in England with the job I had there or working with these guys here.

“You can never stop learning, educating yourself and be better. I’m also doing a degree course in Northumbria University with the Professional Rugby Association through distance learning.”

Paul takes over at the Dubai-based Dragons at a time when they are desperately in need of a boost.

Back-to-back treble winners in 2012/13 and 2013/14, they were kings of domestic rugby; winning the Gulf Top Six, UAE Premiership and Dubai Sevens titles two years running. They have since suffered a slump in form, trailing in the wake of Abu Dhabi duo Harlequins and Saracens as well as Dubai Exiles, who have robbed them of their riches.

However, Paul is relishing the challenge to get Dragons firing once again.

“It’s a good time to come into the club. It probably needs a bit more structure and a bit of a boost. They’re not champions but they’ve got a lot of potential,” he adds. “It’s going to be pretty hard, but by the sounds of it they were there or there abouts in games last year but didn’t win.

“It wasn’t like they were awful. I’m not walking into a team that can’t catch, can’t pass, can’t run. They want to be more consistent and challenge the teams on top.

“I talked about not setting too many outlandish goals. My role here is to establish us. Try to win games but improve the squad and also the club. There’s a range of roles I have to play.”

Paul’s appointment has been two years in the making. He was approached by former player Sean Crombie initially and was keen on moving to the UAE as wife Philippa works for Emirates.

Several trips and meetings with club figures during the last 24 months gave him an inkling that it would be a mutually beneficial relationship.

“It just seemed like a nice fit,” he added. “It’s a real down to earth club, a real humble club. We want to be a really good side with guys that get on socially and work hard on game day. Whether we win trophies or not, time will tell, but if we get things right off the field and at training it’ll go a long way.”

Although firmly focused on the task at hand at Jebel Ali, Paul is ambitious and admits he’s already been in touch with another legend of rugby league, Apollo Perelini, about the prospect of helping to continue the impressive development of the UAE national team.

Paul said: “I’ve spoken to Apollo. He’s got a tough role as the UAE rugby performance manager, there’s a lot going on. I’ve got enough on my plate but that’s a good goal to have.

“If I can help in any capacity I will, because I’ve done a lot of coaching in sevens with the Samurai international side and been successful. I don’t see why I can’t use some of that experience here. I’d love to get involved with the UAE national sevens team.”

The UAE are definitely on the up under Perelini and predecessor Roelof Kotze. The 2020 Olympics has to be an aim for the national team, and it certainly is for Paul.

“I watched the women’s sevens final in Rio and I thought ‘I’d love to be involved in that’,” he said. “Sevens is a real passion of mine. It’s a perfect mix of league and union.

“I’m looking forward to maybe in a couple of years being in an organisation that can be going to Tokyo. I played in two Commonwealth Games so I know as an athlete how good they are. At the moment I’m putting everything I have into my career here but we’ll see what happens further afield.”

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