Interview with Emil Signes
Courtesy Rugby Magazine
Widely regarded as one of the best sevens coaches in the world, Emil Signes has compiled the most varied and successful record of any US coach during a rugby career that has spanned more than 30 years. He has coached both the US Men’s and Women’s National 7s teams, the German Men’s National 7s team and consulted for the Portuguese National 7s team as well. He founded and manages the Atlantis sevens program, a national touring select side that has one of the winningest records in US rugby. Not limited to sevens, Signes has also helped coach the US Women’s National 15s team and several territorial men’s and women’s select sides.
Rugby: What was your first exposure to the game of rugby?
Signes: Well, despite the fact that the first US sevens tournament was won by MIT while I was a student there, I was not into rugby then. I lived in England for a year and a half after college, but I still wasn’t aware of rugby. It wasn’t until I was 28 and playing lunchtime basketball at Lehigh University that I heard “the Word.” Two lunchtime players, Bob Gotthardt and Doug Saul of the Allentown Rugby Club, asked me if I’d be interested in playing rugby. I’m not a person that can say no very well, and the rest is history.
Having been a successful coach of both sevens and fifteens, what are your likes and dislikes on the two forms of the game?
I really like both games, and 15s is certainly where you pay your dues, as both a player and a coach. Getting the opportunity to play sevens in the summer can be like a reward for working so hard at 15s. Some people are lucky and can live on sevens alone.
From the knowledgeable spectator’s perspective, a great 15s game is a great sporting event. The average American, however, can far more easily fall in love with sevens.
The opportunity to travel is a great plus for sevens. Although 15s tours are fine, sevens tours are easier to organize and carry out. Sevens teams can travel together in one vehicle, sit at one table, and tend to be a lot closer knit. Furthermore, sevens tournaments lend themselves to socializing with other teams, often with people from several different countries. I’ve been on nearly 50 sevens tours, to about 20 countries, and met some wonderful people.
I’ve also been able to bring family members on sevens tours.
Why have you devoted such a significant proportion of your life to rugby?
Interesting — I’ve never paused long enough to try to answer that question before! First, it was really, really, fun just to play and socialize afterwards. Then being asked to coach early in my playing career was, I guess, gratifying for my ego and I wanted to do it well. Ever since then my obsessive / compulsive nature took over, and I’ve seen everything in terms of one challenge after another. Even when I list my accomplishments in order to convince myself that I’ve done enough, I just can’t get myself to say “FIN”. There’s always another hurdle to surmount.
How do the satisfactions of coaching and playing compare?
Well, the most fun in playing is game time which, for me, is the least fun of coaching. Standing on the sidelines is a nerve-wracking experience, relieved occasionally by seeing your team do something that vaguely resembles what you’ve worked on in practices. Satisfaction comes after a good performance (where “good” is your perception of it). Surprisingly, satisfaction can come before the event. I always feel charged up after a particularly good practice. There are long term satisfactions to coaching, too. Seeing players that you’ve coached and getting positive feedback years after your interaction with them is very rewarding. I’ve been blessed with being mentioned by several people (not that I’m counting, but it’s more than 30) in profile-type articles. Those are the kind of things that make me want to continue coaching.
Do you try and coach your players psychologically as well as technically?
It’s funny, but occasionally I get told by a player that I provided them with motivation. But, to be honest, I consider myself almost entirely a technical coach. In my early years, I tried what I thought were motivational /psychological techniques, but I found myself saying, “This is not me!” I don’t minimize the effect of psychological techniques, but I’ve decided to stick to what I feel I do best.
Who has influenced you the most over the years?
The most significant was certainly John Ryan of Wales. I really had no concept at all of what the world of serious, competitive rugby was all about until I met John. He originally came to the US with Newport on their 1975 Centenary tour and we invited John back to help coach our teams ten times in the subsequent 15 years.
He stayed at my house every time he came, and we had many late night talks about the game. It was during these conversations that my desire to succeed in rugby really developed, and with each subsequent visit, my aspirations grew.
John went on to become coach of Wales and later manager of their national sevens team and a member of the WRU Executive Committee.
The other huge influence on my rugby career was George Betzler, who basically dragged me into every select-side involvement I ever had (and later into the Super League). Without George, I don’t think I would ever have tried coaching beyond the club level.
Being exposed to quality time with rugby greats such as Bill Freeman and Gordon Tietjens (NZ), Bob Dwyer and Geoff Mould (Australia) has increased my “bonding” to the game (and to the bonuses of success).
Keith Seab er gave me my first-ever international coaching opportunity, with the Cougars at the 1986 Melrose Sevens, and Melrose is still one of my very favorite places in the entire world.
Finally, I can’t underestimate the importance of my wife Heide for understanding that rugby was something I needed to do. This was absolutely essential for it all to work. And it continues to be appreciated.
You were involved last season with coaching Philadelphia-Whitemarsh, which reached the quarterfinal of the 1999 Super League Championship. What are your views on the US Super League?
I wouldn’t have gotten back into 15s if it hadn’t been for the Super League. Whether, in the end, we end up with a continuation of the Super League, a “city-based” league, or an as-yet unknown variation, if you want to strive for excellence, then you’ve got to get those with the potential and desire for excellence to play with and against each other.
We do it in just about every other sport we play. If we’re willing to settle for mediocrity, then there might be a different answer.
I would concede that as a result of the Super League, some club rugby has been impacted negatively. I think that’s an implementation problem that doesn’t take away from the fundamental need to have an elite level of club rugby in the country.
What attracted you to sevens?
First, it was just another fun rugby experience. Then, being one of the only people in the entire US taking sevens seriously (plus having a good group of athletes), I was coaching a successful sevens team. The Bethlehem Hooligans’ victory at the Magnificent 7s (Ontario) in 1978 was special (we’re still the only American men’s team that has won there in nearly 40 years), and a lot more victories followed.
It was really a fun time: the Hooligans were all sevens devotees, and we had great practices and good tournament performances through the next dozen years, including an ERU championship and a 3rd place finish at Nationals.
We weren’t just a good sevens team, either; we won the East Penn 15s Championship in 1980 (and again in 1990) and the Mid-Atlantic Championship in 1981.
Running into the same guys (the Duck Brothers, Rhody Old Boys, OMEX, Hartford, etc. – a small but devoted crew), week after week in what was then a kind of cult activity, was really special.
Then there’s the question of weather. I’m a summer person, and spending a nice, hot summer day at a sevens tournament is my idea of a good outdoor activity. Especially when I don’t have to run around.
What do you consider your most significant achievement as the men’s’ National Sevens Coach?
In my mind it was organizing the selection process: establishing the national sevens camp, and making it virtually mandatory. Finding those players whose sevens skills did not come out in 15s. I think being in love with sevens and transmitting that feeling to the players helped too.
Who is the best sevens player you’ve ever seen?
I’d have to go with the conventional wisdom and pick Waisale Serevi. He seems to be able to do things no one else in the world can do. Eric Rush and David Campese have to be on the list, and then one must wonder just how good, over time, Christian Cullen and Jonah Lomu would be if they were to spend the same amount of time on sevens as those other guys.
Among American men, I’d still give the nod to three guys that I coached: Tommy Smith, Charlie Wilkinson and Will Brewington. During that same era, Gary Lambert, Mike Siano and Barry Williams were all exceptional players. During the last few years the most consistent US player has probably been Vaea Anitoni. The creator with speed is a rare commodity.
What about the women?
The best woman sevens player I’ve seen is probably Anna Richards of New Zealand.
It’s funny, but among the US women no one that jumps out at me as being the best. Laura Cabrera’s speed stands out, Diane Schnapp wins ball better than anyone, Anita Pease has great vision, and I could go on about special talents of special people. Lots of great sevens players, but I can’t say anyone stands out way above everyone else. Not that that’s a bad thing.
Patty Jervey and Jen Crawford may have missed their chance to be that person (but maybe not!), and if Pam Irby can stop having babies for a couple of years, maybe she can show, in high-level sevens, what she can do with that world class speed.
Working closely with the Under-23 program may help us find that person, whoever she may be.
What is the Atlantis philosophy?
Well, the main idea behind Atlantis is to provide a vehicle for serious players to play serious sevens.
Sometimes this means mixing sides of experienced players and promising novices. For difficult international tournaments, we try to assemble teams representative of the best the US has to offer. Occasionally we include top players from other countries, such as Canada’s Dave Lougheed, who played for us in Adelaide in 1997.
Given the fact that I’m both the Atlantis emperor and the US women’s national coach, I am also able to use Atlantis as a developmental tool for this national team.
Are you content with running Atlantis, or would you like to be involved with the men’s National Sevens program?
That’s like asking the Dalai Lama if he’d like to see Tibet again (with an equal likelihood of success). Actually, I would attach so many conditions to coaching there again, that that possibility no longer exists, even in my most extended fantasy world.
What would those conditions be?
1. I’d have to be paid.2. I’d need a long-term commitment (there’s a lot to do).3. I’d need to choose the staff.4. I’d need to be in control of selection. Of course, all that is academic now, as Tommy Smith seems pretty secure in the position and, knowing Tommy, he’ll do a great job.
The other part of your question was “Are you content with coaching Atlantis?” I love coaching Atlantis, and that has certainly sustained me over a long period of time. Nevertheless, the challenges of coaching a national team are hard to minimize.
You've recieved women's rugby very warmly from the moment it began, wheras the majority of men were skeptical to downright negative. Why is that?
I don't really know. I came from an environement in which my father had to drop out of school when he was eight years old, and never held a job beyond skilled laborer (he was very proud of his elementary school equivalency). My mother, on the other hand, had multiple graduate degrees, was a teacher, principal, founder of one of the early bilingual programs in the United States (Paterson, NJ), and a well-respected community leader. Then I married a woman who had been a shot- putter in high school. So I suppose I had a view of male-female roles that differed from that of most people.
How did the women’s division come to be included at the Hong Kong Sevens?
It all started as I was departing from the Dubai Sevens in November 1995. Next to me on the check-in line at the airport was Anne Marie O’Donoghue, the chairperson of Hong Kong women’s rugby. I asked her about the possibility of the Hong Kong women driving an effort to provide a venue for international women’s sevens at the Hong Kong 7s. That conversation was the genesis behind what would become the Hong Kong Invitational Women’s Sevens.
The Hong Kong women staged a mini-sevens tournament in 1996, and Atlantis took part. The competition was not tough, and we won easily. Part of our reason for going was to impress whoever needed to be impressed that international women’s rugby could be skillful. One person who saw the competition was the BBC’s Ian Robertson, a former Scottish international, who was very impressed with the caliber of play.
The 1997 Hong Kong Women’s Sevens took place a week before “the” Hong Kong Sevens and was an excellent event, featuring 12 teams. The US beat England to earn the right to meet New Zealand in the final, where we were thrashed. But it was a great start, and we knew we would get better.
The 1998 women’s event was cancelled due to the Women’s World Cup and the Asian economic crisis but I attended the Hong Kong 7s as a journalist and met with Karen Robertson and Dick Airth to discuss the future of the women’s tournament. I suggested that the women’s final by held as an integral part of the men’s tournament and that’s what happened in 1999.
The latest information I have is that the 2000 event is planned as a two-day tournament, Thursday and Friday, with the women’s final again integrated into the men's tournament.
Are you happy coaching the Women’s National Sevens Program?
With the possibility of increased opportunities, the answer to that question is a loud “Yes!”
High-visibility international women’s sevens right now is limited to one game at one tournament: the final of the Women’s Hong Kong Sevens.
If international women’s sevens were to progress beyond this precarious existence — for example, if some of the existing world circuit tournaments were to incorporate women’s as well as men’s brackets and fund them — there’d be no time to look back (or in any other direction).
Do you employ different tactics when coaching men and women?
The short answer is no. Maybe even “NO!”
The long answer is, I’m sure, more complicated. I focus on the technical aspects of the game, and coach based on the players’ skill level, not their gender. Nevertheless, each person, each group of people responds differently to coaching, and I try to pick up on clues I get from the players’ responses to what we’re doing, to what I’m saying. Based on those clues, I continuously modify how I proceed.
I never consider gender in my plans or approach. I never go to a camp, or a practice, or a tournament, thinking “Gee, today I’m coaching [insert gender], so I’ll [insert approach].” A better example of what I think about is: “Hmm, today I’m xgoing to coach [insert group]; we’re going to work on defensive patterns and their scrumhalf is pretty slow. Maybe we ought to work on a nonstandard approach to sweeping.”
There was a long thread in the women’s rugby discussion group recently about the differences of coaching women and men. I suppose those people knew what they were talking about, but when I read things like: “men have a more competitive nature; results are less important to women”, I thought “Those people haven’t coached the women I’ve been coaching!”
Are there any accomplishments that you prize above all else in your rugby career?
Having been mentioned by many players of both genders as “best coach,” “best manager,” “best administrator,” “most positive influence”, “significantly improving US rugby,” etc., is unspeakably wonderful. Even being part of someone’s most embarrassing moment is special. It indicates to me that I’ve made a difference in some people’s rugby lives.
I’m pleased because I think I’ve been able to give both men's and women’s rugby players an appreciation and respect for the other gender’s efforts and accomplishments. At every venue where we (US &/or Atlantis) had both women’s and men’s teams participate, the players formed a bond that wouldn’t have been imaginable a few years ago (and in many cases, is still not imaginable today).
There’s one other area that I hope will become partially my legacy. Whether or not it will, depends on what happens with international women’s sevens. If it ever takes off in a big way, I will feel very rewarded. I can see part of my personal imprint on so many significant events that have transpired to date that I know I’m making a difference. As we speak, however, the future of international women’s sevens is still very much up in the air.
The best thing about all of this is, tomorrow is another day.
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