Having spent almost his entire adult life coaching in Wales, Scotland’s new forwards coach already had a sense of the inevitable coming on down the tracks, his antennae twitching in anticipation even before the announcement that it was, inevitably, Wales that would host Scotland in a fourth autumn Test in Cardiff, the city he has only recently quit.
“I said to my wife, ‘you’re not going to believe who the first game is against?’ ” says Danny Wilson with a rueful smile. “I’ve coached a lot of those players individually and collectively when I was with the Wales under-20s and then through the regional coaching, and now I’m going to be coaching against them.
“It’s a fantastic group there with some real good depth. Gats [Warren Gatland] and his group of coaches have done an extremely good job over the years and you can see the success they’ve had. I worked closely with Shaun Edwards last year and know what a quality coach he is.
“There are two sides to the coin, there are bits and pieces about them I’m aware of but there’s also a group of people who know a huge amount about me as a coach as well.”
The first thing Wilson did on signing up for Scotland was head to the other side of the world to keep an eye on several World Cup rivals. It was, he reports, a relief to get off the treadmill off coaching week to week and instead have the luxury of sitting back and taking in the bigger picture.
“Just recently we went to New Zealand and Australia, and Gregor [Townsend] went on to America,” he says. “Just to do a little bit of looking at the opposition obviously in Championship Games, and then a bit of looking at other organisations, other sports, and their cultures and environments and comparing them to rugby.
“It was brilliant, the biggest change for me so far is coming out of job where, for X amount of years now, it is week in, week out, game after game after game. You get a chance now in these periods to study the game a little bit more rather than getting into the routine of analysing your game and preparing for the next opposition you play. In this job it gives you a bit more time. It’s given me a chance to study the game again.”
Wilson was one of those left-field picks as Scotland’s forwards’ coach that Gregor Townsend likes to spring on the Scottish public and the funny thing about the former Cardiff Blues coach is that he is English, which only makes his success in Wales all the more remarkable. As he notes at one point, “you definitely need to be thick skinned coaching in Wales” and, if nothing else, Wilson has at least proved that he is a survivor in a naturally hostile environment.
He was born in Weston Super Mare but moved to Wales at the age of 20 and married a Welsh rugby international, Rachel Poolman as was, whose brother still coaches the Llanelli forward pack. Such was his integration into the community that his two kids have been attending a Welsh-speaking school, which are in short supply in Gullane, East Lothian, where the family has settled since moving north.
“I was hoping the golf course option would be the one [house] my wife would pick and she did!” says a relieved Wilson.
His coaching career started as a development officer in Cardiff before moving down the M4 to London Welsh only to return to the Dragons as forwards coach a few years later. He did the Wales 20s, the Scarlets’ forwards, the same job with Bristol for a year and then got promoted to the top job at Cardiff Blues in 2015. He was even asked to take Wales on tour in 2017 (when Warren Gatland was in New Zealand with the Lions) only to pull out late in the day when Cardiff’s perennial money problems threatened to submerge the club.
Those same financial insecurities persuaded him to demote himself, from head coach at Cardiff to assistant at Wasps under Dai Young, only for Townsend to dangle the international bait under his nose, as Wilson explains.
“I kinda got to know Gregor obviously by preparing and playing against him over the years and at coaching conferences. There were certain ones that he was at that I was at and I got to know him quite well, socialising on those types of things and networking.
“I think his view on the game is something that I have always agreed with and tried to follow a similar way of playing. I believe in that style of rugby, whether it’s attack, defence, set piece, tying into that style and that philosophy is something that I am quite passionate about and that he is very passionate about.
“It [the move] was all very late which obviously wasn’t great timing from a Wasps point of view, there’s no doubt about that, I recognise that. But the opportunity was one that very seldom comes around and when it does you’ve got to be ready to take it. If Wasps hadn’t agreed, I would have worked very hard for them. I’d fully committed to them and was looking forward to it.
“To go to a World Cup, be involved in the Six Nations, most people would agree is the pinnacle for any coach. You work hard to get that opportunity, and when you get it you don’t know if it will come round again. Scotland and Wasps spoke in detail and amicably agreed I could go and take the opportunity. I was very lucky that Dai [Young] was extremely understanding.”
Wilson takes over Scotland’s forward pack at an interesting time in its development. For the first time since 1999 Scotland’s backs, two of whom were chosen in the original Lions’ party, are where the strength of the team lies rather than the forwards who have some catching up to do, especially in the back five of the scrum.
The signs are hopeful, especially after last weekend’s European ties when Edinburgh and Glasgow’s defence, especially against Toulon’s driving maul, was impenetrable for long periods of both matches, Richard Cockerill’s side especially impressive given the quality (and sheer size) of the opposition.
There are two new players for the new coach to work with. Wilson is an undisguised fan of the Scarlets four/six/eight Blade Thomson (“a fantastic talent”) and Sam Skinner of the Chiefs alongside young hopefuls like Matt Fagerson, Magnus Bradbury and Lewis Carmichael (currently injured) all with one eye on RWC19. Some of the older, more experienced forwards must be nervous.
If Scotland can cobble together a competitive set of forwards in time for the big one in Japan next year then, given the proven strike runners in a dangerous back division, they could yet surprise a few.
“I’m extremely passionate about Scottish rugby,” says Wales’ favourite Englishman. “I’m sold on a lot of what has been put in front of me. I can see the passion in Scotland, similar to Wales and I know I’ve a huge responsibility to fill.
“Everything I heard from Gregor was extremely persuasive. Scotland are in the right place and are moving forward. A lot of what was sold to me was extremely convincing.
“What we’re all striving for is consistency. I look at the England game and it was a very different animal. So was Australia. Some of those games where Scotland have had fantastic wins very recently, you see what we’re striving for.”