By Louis Ricard
It’s 30 minutes before kickoff and a man walks onto the field, stepping on each little section of grass the rain severely damaged throughout the week. Wearing a hoodie, a pair of large rectangular sunglasses hiding his eyes and a trimmed beard, David Clancy’s face is as tough to read as a good poker player’s bluff.
He walks and stomps some more until he’s satisfied with the quality of the rugby pitch, finally turning toward his players warming up and with one blow of his whistle, the ball suddenly stops moving and all heads turn toward him, awaiting his command.
For the people walking by, Clancy, with his athletic build, looks like a player who is sitting the game out, his whistle the only difference.
But the 29-year-old Irishman is far more than a peer to his team.
The Chicago Lions never had a full-time coach until Clancy landed on U.S. soil. Somehow, this was the move he had been waiting for his entire career, the opportunity of painting his vision on a brand-new canvas.
“As a group, we knew that it was time to go to the next level,” said Tony Rio, former president and current director of business development for the club. “Dave was ready to take that step as he had all the qualifications to be the next head coach of the Chicago Lions.”
Both parties found a common ground: Success.
The Lions have been on the rugby scene for over 55 years, becoming one of the more recognizable names in American amateur rugby. Clancy was all the club needed to turn the corner and attack the professional side of the sport.
“He has established professionalism, from a coaching standpoint, since he has stepped foot in Chicago,” said Michael Ziegler, one of Clancy’s players.
“He has done this in countless ways starting the first-ever women’s Lions 15 A-Side team. He and Andy Rose (the Lions’ youth rugby director) have built an entire youth program all the way from U10s to high school. He is helping spearhead a sporting facility in one of Chicago’s roughest neighborhoods and not to mention our three straight final-eight appearances, two final-four appearances, and 10+ players in the Major League Rugby.”
Stepping into a head coaching position at 27 with the majority of the staff being older, Clancy said he knew he was going to have to prove himself, and he set to do so on the very first day of practice.
Usually, players carry the gear and equipment to the practice field, but the new head coach had other plans.
He came in earlier that day, grabbing everything himself from the clubhouse and bringing it to the field. He then proceeded to lay out the cones all over the turf for each exercise he had planned out for the team that day.
This was his team, and he intended to put it to work.
“I promised them that we would only train for 90 minutes and that there wouldn’t be any down time,” he said.
Since Clancy joined the club, every coach receives a spreadsheet with the training schedule planned for the week – down to the minute, water breaks included. The players are then told in the first practice of each week what the sessions will look like. Clancy also arranges weekly conference calls with his staff to go over games, practices and lineups.
Oh, and just in case he forgets, he has each training session saved as his screensaver for the day of.
“Our practices started to be more structured and efficient than ever,” said Daniel Coci, Lions’ co-captain. “We currently have film broken down of our practices and every game. Coach Clancy has a phenomenal rugby IQ and love of the game. Personally, I do not think there is another amateur club in the country that acts more professional than the Chicago Lions.”
Clancy changed a culture by bringing his own to the game. The Irish coach lives by the words of Benjamin Franklin:
Tell me and I forget…
Teach me and I remember…
Involve me and I learn.
Those words, he said, carried him through every job he ever held in the rugby world, reminding him that success is obtained as a team, not as an individual in this sport.
Clancy’s coaching trajectory is unlike most people, especially for his young age. His resume is three pages long, with coaching jobs in Europe, Samoa and Central America.
At 18, the young Irishman had to find an internship in his field – originally strength and conditioning. Clancy says that it is common for students to follow youth teams, but he wanted more. A few phone calls later, he was accepted as a strength and conditioning intern at Munster Rugby Club, a European rugby staple for anyone familiar to the game.
“They asked me when I could start,” Clancy said. “I told them I could be down there in 30 minutes.”
After over a year at the club, an opportunity came up with the Samoa’s sevens team and its strength and conditioning program for the 21-year-old aspiring coach.
Clancy packed his bag and left his home country for over a year and a half, during which he learned from an experienced staff – including one of his mentors Scott Wisemantel, who now coaches the England national rugby team – which enabled him to transition from the gym to the field.
Clancy’s knowledge of the game and willingness to learn then took him to the Cayman Island, where rugby slowly developed over the years. The Cayman rugby union was still learning how to grow its program, and after contacting several people to get a reference on someone apt to the challenge, it found the perfect fit.
“The ring around (phone calls) ended up with me,” he said. “I went out there for six months, and we lost to Mexico in an overtime drop goal, but then the union asked me if I’d stay and take on more of an expanded role. So I started coaching sevens. Then it was women’s sevens. Then I was an assistant coach for the fifteens team.
“And we kept on achieving success.”
For the first time in its history, the men’s national team qualified for the Hong Kong Sevens competition and both national teams recorded a high world ranking (men and women).
Munster, Samoa, Cayman Island, and… Chicago?
Clancy doesn’t care where he is, as long as success is achieved. He instilled a professional culture in an amateur club in America. He developed a youth program and a women’s team while taking his men to multiple national tournaments.
Any team he’s been a part of has found its way to success.
It’s what drives Clancy to be the coach he is today.
It’s what will drive him to be an even better one tomorrow.
Photo at top: David Clancy likes to remove himself from the drills he has players running to understand their reasoning so that he can involve them and they can learn from it – just like Benjamin Franklin predicted. Credit: Louis Ricard/Medill.