Tragedy to triumph: The man behind rugby's miracle revivals

·Contributor
·4-min read
Darren Coleman has been tasked with resurrecting the fortunes of the NSW Waratahs, but it's his history coaching in the lower grades of rugby that have earned him a reputation for connecting with players. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Darren Coleman has been tasked with resurrecting the fortunes of the NSW Waratahs, but it's his history coaching in the lower grades of rugby that have earned him a reputation for connecting with players. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

It says a lot about Darren Coleman – the man charged with turning around the fortunes of the worst teams in Super Rugby – that he runs towards the fire, not away, when it's at its fiercest.

Coleman had known the Ward family for less than 12 months when tragedy struck on the back fields of Pittwater Rugby Park on Sydney's northern beaches in June, 2017.

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Lachlan Ward, an enthusiastic lower grade player with the Warringah Rats, was in the thick of the action against Gordon when he suddenly dropped dead.

He was just 24.

Ward's brother, Sam, was captain of the Rats' first grade and in his first season under Coleman.

But despite only knowing the coach for a short time, he asked him to deliver a eulogy at his brother's funeral.

Those who heard Coleman's tribute say it was extraordinary, the rookie coach capturing just the right words as grief gripped an entire community.

"I'd only known him for about a year but that's how quickly I and my family got to know him," Ward told Yahoo Sport Australia.

"He was a footy coach but he was also a mate. I found it very easy to talk to him.

"We asked him to speak on behalf of the club and he was incredible."

Coleman then somehow had to tread the sensitive line between respecting the players' grieving process and getting their minds back on the job.

Darren Coleman's beautiful act after Sydney rugby tragedy

Ahead of the club's first game following Ward's death, he asked his players to write down the reasons they love rugby then told them to go out and enjoy themselves.

He told his stats man to take the day off. Missed tackles and turnovers meant nothing.

Bit by bit, match by match, he refocused his players.

"We were incredibly fortunate to have him at that time," Warringah's fly-half Hamish Angus said.

"We were such a tight group thanks to his systems and when that awful situation happened, we had a great platform for him to bring us back together.

"Nothing was rushed. He was really in tune and connected to what need to be done at that time."

Coleman harnessed all that emotion, anger and sadness to galvanise the Rats and guide them to their first Shute Shield grand final after a 53-year drought.

Tasked with reviving the NSW Waratahs' Super Rugby fortunes, Darren Coleman will have his work cut out for him in 2022. (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images for Rugby Australia)
Tasked with reviving the NSW Waratahs' Super Rugby fortunes, Darren Coleman will have his work cut out for him in 2022. (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images for Rugby Australia)

It was an incredible performance after an event which would have ripped most clubs apart.

"Obviously we had more reason to play (to honour Lachlan), but I don’t think we would have won that year without DC," Ward said.

"He makes you think about your game.

"We were handy players, had skills, but he made us accountable and questioned us.

"A lot of us didn’t know why we were doing certain things and he made us understand.

"He was increasing our rugby IQ."

Coleman's magic continued at Shute Shield plodders Gordon, taking the Stags to a breakthrough premiership win two years after leaving Warringah.

He then guided LA Giltinis to the first Major League Rugby title in the US, showing what works for him here can be replicated overseas.

On Friday night he embarks on his biggest challenge – leading the NSW Waratahs into the first season of Super Rugby Pacific.

The Tahs were the laughing stock of last year's competition, failing to win a game and shipping monster scorelines.

There was only one thing to do. Better Call Saul DC.

Lost causes are Coleman's specialty. He majors in rebuilds.

Always running to the fire, not away from it.

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