Omar Mouneimne: Ultimate fighter ready for Munster

Defence coach relishing ‘hell of a game’ against Munster after restoring Edinburgh’s backbone

Cage fighting fan Omar Mouneimne, right, with head coach Alan Solomons. Picture: SNS/SRU
Cage fighting fan Omar Mouneimne, right, with head coach Alan Solomons. Picture: SNS/SRU
Cage fighting fan Omar Mouneimne, right, with head coach Alan Solomons. Picture: SNS/SRU

Behind every successful cerebral figure there lies a Rottweiler whose job it is to browbeat, badger or bully the footsoldiers into line. Ian McGeechan had Jim Telfer to wave the big stick, Gordon Brown employed Damian McBride as his enforcer and Alan Solomons has Omar Mouneimne to keep his Edinburgh side on their toes.

He is an interesting and effervescent character who boasts a Lebanese ancestry, a Zimbabwean upbringing and a sporting background that mixed rugby with a dazzling array of martial arts including wrestling, boxing, judo, Thai boxing and Brazilian jujitsu. He and his brother also pioneered Ultimate Fighting in South Africa, which sees two combatants going at it in a cage until one of them concedes. He may be a relative Lilliputian amongst the giants he coaches but you imagine that, when Mouneimne barks, the players jump.

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The attack dog doubles up as Edinburgh’s defence coach and it is thanks to him welding some steel into the Edinburgh spine that the club has carved out the chance of a European lifeline this afternoon. Their defensive heroics against Gloucester at Kingsholm and again against Perpignan last weekend have earned the club a sliver of respect after a couple of sorry seasons. An unlikely victory (or even a draw) against Munster in their Thomond Park stronghold this afternoon will be enough to see Edinburgh squeeze into the Amlin Challenge Cup. So what exactly has Mouneimne brought to the party?

“Everyone has brought something and contributed to a massive effort to the team and the squad,” comes his quickfire reply. “It is definitely not just me. If Alan [Solomons] has made reference to me then that’s kind of him, but the tribute should be to the guys who are putting the work in, the players. They are paying attention and putting in the time.

“Obviously, without a pre-season it’s difficult to create an obvious culture from game one so, if you arrive after game one, you are having to get them in your way of thinking and dispel bad habits. The way we did it was simple. Our formula was never not having that one-on-one [coaching session], never not having that unit meeting, never not showing the mistakes they made.

“I think the thing they [the players] found difficult at the beginning was brutal honesty, 24/seven, seven days a week, all day every day. Now they appreciate it because now I say, ‘look you’re just not good enough in this area, you don’t have the workrate, you don’t have the aggression, your tackle technique is no good, X, Y and Z’. He [the player] thinks ‘the way things are I probably won’t hear that again’. [But] you are going to hear that again because we are going to watch the training tapes. We’re going to watch the game and we’re going see if you make the same mistakes and we’re going to be on you till you fix it. That’s been one of the keys.

“Do I seem like an attack dog? Listen, Alan is quite an intense fellow himself but I do think we complement each other. Alan obviously is a man of advanced years now [the head coach is 63] and he can’t be jumping up and down [on] the field but he brings a lot of energy and he brings a lot to the table. Like any good director of rugby or coach he knows how to delegate and get others guys to do what he needs done. Alan’s always liked teams that are physical and guys that can produce workrate. In a way I’m an attack dog, I suppose.”

The canine defence coach had enjoyed a varied career that included stints with the Springbok under-20s and Sevens squad, the Cape Town-based Stormers and, latterly, Italy. It was former Italy coach Nick Mallett who recommended Mouneimne to Solomons. They then got together at the Southern Kings in South Africa and have reprised their double act in Edinburgh.

Acutely aware of the controversy surrounding the influx of foreigners at Edinburgh, especially his fellow South Africans, Mouneimne is quick to heap praise on the local player pool. Asked about Scottish talent, he says: “I think there is a high level of ability, I think there is tremendous potential.

“I keep being shocked. Remember, we played them in the Six Nations and, as Italy, we beat them. Obviously, I believed in Italy and we coached them well [under Mallett] but I always thought the Scots were very talented and should have been a cut above.”

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But, according to Mouneimne, there is a much broader problem with the game in Scotland and it lies in identity, or rather, the lack of one. “Essentially I don’t know if there is a commonality in how you tag a Scottish team or a Scottish player,” continues Mouneimne. “For example [when] you talk about the Springboks you talk about pure aggression and a systematic kicking game, all in-your-face. Talk about the All Blacks: power, pace, finesse, you know. I don’t know if there is a clear, clear – at this point – identity of, description of the Scottish guy. I think they have come a long way, I just think there is much more to be done.”

Mouneimne makes it clear that this is not a criticism of the current national management but a broader comment on Scottish rugby’s place within the world game. It is no less damning for that because he’s right. Scotland have yet to forge themselves a playing identity in the professional era and, if the country simply copies what everyone else is doing, the numbers game means they will fail more often than not. Scotland needs to find a Scottish solution to the problems of professional rugby and that means finding a style of rugby that suits Scottish players.

Quite how an influx of South Africans will help is anyone’s guess but at least we can be grateful to one of them for highlighting an uncomfortable truth.

There are more pressing matters on Mouneimne’s mind right now, such as beating the two-times European champions in their own backyard. Munster have an enviable record at Thomond Park, so how does he go about negating that?

“One of the things I like to say to the guys is that if they were fighting in a real war – which none of us can comprehend because you can’t compare war and rugby – but, if you were a guy going off to war, you wouldn’t say that you really wish this war was being fought in your neighbourhood, or five kilometres from where you live. With a war it is going to be foreign territory and you have to accept that it is going to be hostile, and what we are telling the guys is that they have to be ready for that. Some places are going to be more hostile, like Thomond Park, and, at the end of the day, the way you block them out is by keeping your concentration and sticking to your structures.

“They [Munster] mix up their direct game with their continuity and wider gameplan. They are a world-class team, and even before Rob Penney [the Munster coach] arrived, they were a very proud side.

“You’ve got a team that has got a championship history and they already have one advantage – they put the jersey over their head and they know they are playing for something real and are accountable for something real. So, they are expansive, they are aggressive, they are disciplined, and they are streetwise. It is going to be a hell of a game.”