From dictatorial teacher to sevens guru, new Hong Kong coach Paul John is loving being back on the roller coaster
The Welshman credits his father Dennis as his biggest influence and feels a World Series berth would be the answer to many of his new side’s questions
While he admits he is prone to the odd moment of frustration, new Hong Kong boss Paul John says his coaching style is far removed from the dictator-like approach he once took in the classroom.
Eager to throw himself into the pressure cooker that is the Hong Kong Sevens, the ex-Wales coach credits his father Dennis and 14 years as a teacher for moulding him into the coach he is today.
“I suppose you learn to adapt your coaching and differentiate your coaching as a result of being a teacher,” he said.
“When you’ve got boys and girls in a group with mixed ability, and very mixed ability when you start, I probably went from trying to be a dictator-type teacher to being, oh hang on, that’s not the way to do things.
“I feel the best way to coach is to look at what you’ve got and see what best suits what you’ve got and try and develop players to make decisions on the field themselves rather than dictate to them what they have to do.”
John’s father also coached Wales, working closely with Hong Kong 15s boss Leigh Jones, while John himself represented his country as a player.
“He [Dennis] coached Wales as well and him and Leigh Jones coached together for a long time with Wales A and got on really well,” John said.
“My dad influenced me as far as the 15s game is concerned, and when I started coaching sevens I was working with Gareth Williams who is coaching Wales now.”
The Welsh influence in Hong Kong rugby has been well documented but it goes even deeper for John, who replaced Gareth Baber in the Wales job before replacing him here in Hong Kong, with another Welshman in Jevon Groves acting as the interim boss.
“I read that Gareth was taking the Fiji role and it just went from there really,” John said. “I was approaching my fourth year in 15s [working for the Cardiff Blues] and while I was doing 15s, for the first two years I didn’t do any sevens.
“Last summer I did a bit of sevens with [invitational side] Samurai, went to Dublin with them and coached them in the Sevens and the City and realised probably that I enjoyed the game and would love to get back into it should the opportunity arise.”
On meeting John, who coached Wales to victory in the 2009 Sevens World Cup, it quickly becomes clear he is back in his element.
Sevens is his game and after a lengthy absence from the condensed format, he is delighted to again be involved.
John also led Wales to the cup final at the Hong Kong Sevens in 2013, where they went down to Fiji 26-19 in an epic, and he says he cannot wait for the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series qualifying tournament to begin.
“I’m just looking forward to it and looking forward to getting back into the sevens environment,” he said.
“I did sevens for six years with Wales and I loved that. I know its going to be nerve-wracking and I know it’s going to be a roller coaster from that point of view, which is the beauty of sevens.”
Family was the reason John stepped away from sevens last time around and it is obvious just how much they influence everything he does.
His wife and three kids are planning a mid-year move to Hong Kong, with his wife taking a job at Kellett School.
John says the fact he has been in his new role less than a month won’t hinder Hong Kong’s chances in the qualifying competition, thanks largely to the weekend the team spent in Borneo.
“The best thing I could have done was to go on a tournament,” John said. “I think you find out more about them and they probably find out more about me in that environment.
“They are knowledgeable in the game of sevens, they enjoy sevens and it matters to them, that is clear. “I found them really coachable and they are intelligent rugby players who are nice to work with.”
Hong Kong have had a good preparation with a trip to Fiji for the Coral Coast Sevens, the tournament in Borneo and training matches against Fiji and Wales in the past week.
But the reality is there is an air of sameness hovering over the hosts’ Sevens campaign as they prepare to take on Chile, Sri Lanka and Namibia in pool play, with every player in the squad besides Jason Jeyam having played at the Sevens before.
This is not necessarily a negative on its own, but the fact that eight of the 13 are aged 29 or above and five have played in at least six Hong Kong Sevens suggests the level of improvement is limited.
It is obvious that Hong Kong needs to foster young talent, but while there are concerns around how they would cope were they to make it through to the World Series, John feels making the series would provide more answers than questions.
“The potential of Hong Kong sevens is huge,” he said. “The boys are being pulled in so many different ways at the moment, getting into the series would help with everything else.
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“With the Asian Series, with the Asian Games, with qualification for the Olympics, there is so much to play for at the moment within the sevens game.
”Obviously getting onto the series is the aim immediately, albeit it is going to be a tough tournament because there are so many good teams in there.”