New life of Cardiff coach John Mulvihill, who passed away ‘angry’ after exiting Arms Park

Almost 18 months after his abrupt departure from Arms Park, John Mulvihill is coaching Cardiff players.

He is doing so in the world-famous colors of the barbarians, whom he is in charge of encountering with Spain on Saturday evening in the city of Gijon on the Bay of Biscay.

For his two-and-a-half-year stint in the Welsh capital, the Australian has selected five players to work with him in Ray Lee Low, James Botham, Scott Andrews, Kirby Myhill and Owen Lane. Since parting ways with the then Blues, he has been employed first with the national team in Russia and then with CSKA Moscow, which has seen him work for the past four months against the backdrop of events in Ukraine. But he still maintains a home in Cardiff and sees it as his long-term base.

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When we go out to chat, I find him in a bubbly mood, enjoying the unique mix of rugby and babas to offer. But things were very different between his premature departure from Arms Park following a home loss to the Ospreys on New Year’s Eve in January 2021. He admits it was a difficult time and that he passed out “angry”.

“You look back and think if I might have done things a little differently and maybe there’s a thing or two I could have done better. Maybe the trust factor is something. I’m really trusting people and maybe That I need to think again in that environment,” he said.

“I guess I give everyone the benefit of the doubt and I’m probably not going to act as hard as other people. When my wife meets someone for the first time, she can tell me straight away whether they’re nice or not.” So I might need to take it a little slower with some people in the future. I’m definitely moving into my next job, my eyes are really wide open.

“The biggest thing for me at the end in Cardiff is that I got away with being on the pitch. I’m a good coach and doing my best on the green. But I’ve spent so much time on the side of the Rugby Management Board, recruiting meetings. I, the director of the rugby role, spent time looking after the academy, making sure everyone else did their job instead of me doing it.

“In a way, I was very good at making sure everyone else was okay, I was redundant in my role. I wanted to make sure we had a good environment and that everyone knew what they were doing. And everyone was taken care of, but at the end of the day I probably neglected what I should be doing. It’s something I won’t do again.”

Explaining how being fired affected him, he said: “I think you lose a little bit of confidence along the way, but then you realize I’m a really good coach and a good person.” So you just get on with it. I might have been in a bit of a temper tantrum for a while, but that wasn’t going to help me or my family or anyone else. You learn along the way.

“As long as you look back and learn from your experiences what you could have done a little better then you can move on. It’s all about learning. I’m in my 50s and I’m still learning I am. That’s the way it goes.”

Even though he may be operating far away from Meczyki, Mulvihill still keeps a close eye on how Cardiff is faring.

“I watch all their games because I have put my heart and soul in that place. A lot of those little kids got their first chance with me. So I want them to do well and what happened to them this season.” A little sad to see, but there are still some good guys out there and some good boys out there. I hope it turns out for them.”

Finding himself out of work upon leaving Arms Park, it was a question of what would happen next for the former fly-half, who has had past coaching spells in Ireland and Japan, as well as in his native Australia.

“I had a little time to reflect. You need to do this otherwise you go round in circles. But I wanted to keep busy, I wanted to keep coaching,” he said.

“When the opportunity came to coach the Russian national team, I said ‘yes, I’m going to do it’ and I enjoyed it. I came home wondering what was next and then the club (CSKA Moscow) Called me and said can you come and coach us. I am still the head coach there and I will have to be back in two weeks when the season resumes.”

So what has it been like working in Russia given the state of war in Ukraine? Did he consider quitting his job?

“I was committed to the group and I didn’t want to disappoint them. All our overseas players are gone, so we’re giving a lot of young kids the game.

“I’m really sorry for the players. They’re like players anywhere. They’re really worried that everyone hates Russia and hates Russians. The reality is there are really good people at the club. Many of them have families in Ukraine or are married to Ukrainian women. Some boys had to cross the border to take out their grandparents. It affects everyone. Moscow is one of the most amazing cosmopolitan cities to visit. I’ve been there. I think people want things to go back to normal.”

Right now, Mulvihill’s focus is on the Barbarians and Saturday’s game against the Spanish national team at the Estadio El Molinen in Gijon. This is the second time he has coached the famed Invitational team, joining countrymen Alan Jones and Brian Smith for a Sydney showdown with his homeland of Australia in 2017.

“It’s nice to be on a Berberian trip and have fun, where you don’t have a lot of structure about your week. It reminds you again why you love being involved in sports,” he said.

Mulvihill was supposed to work with former All Blacks coach Robbie Dean this week, but then plans changed. “Robby had to drop out at the last minute, so I’m going to do it myself. I decided I was going to do it the way I wanted to do it. I picked the team and started training.”

“We keep it really simple, really basic. I’ve got 443 Test caps in this group. We’ve got players who’ve gone to the World Cup, guys who’ve won Triple Crowns and Grand Slams, a lot. I don’t need to tell them what to do. You just keep it simple and let them play.

“We could have picked a Welsh barbarian like in the game against England last weekend where they picked all the French, but I didn’t want to do that so I’ve got ten different nationalities here. We’re on the bus, There’s music playing, the boys are talking and laughing. Life is good enough. It’s great to be around this group and be on the top end of the game.”

Then, of course, there’s the mythical social side of ba-bass. How is he dealing with it?

“I’m a little dusty today! All the boys had beers in their hands when I walked down the stairs to get on the bus to the touch point down the beach.

“We did a proper training session on Tuesday and then went out and had a team dinner and that kind of evolved into a team drink. People were getting up since morning.

“When we met at the beginning of the week, I told them we weren’t going to fill out the wellness sheets because I know you’re going to be sleep s*** and you’re going to be dehydrated. Our wellbeing is making sure of it.” That your partner should get up on the bed next to you. That was our mantra from the beginning, so it was fun.

“I have either coached or coached against a lot of these boys. It’s great to sit down over dinner to talk to them and talk about other things outside of rugby that tickles them.

“Dan Baker got married last week and he’s here with us on his honeymoon. We have guys who have just had kids. It’s great to find out the back stories of these guys.

“For Devin Toner and Tom Wood, this is their last storm, their last game. So we want to make sure we have a great week with those boys.”

So will forwards Toner and Wood be handed kicking duty, as was the case with George Krause, who scored a hat-trick of conversions against England at Twickenham last Saturday, including a cheeky back-heel effort?

“Training took a while and the boys started practicing. Some people were making him stand in line and I said ‘No, you are not getting a kick because you are not retiring’. Only those who retire will put them in line. So both of them have practiced a bit.”

Finally, what about the 55-year-old Mulvihill’s long-term future? Where is this lie?

“It has been a bit of a tough time in the game through Covid. Welsh teams have released 50 odd players, with English Premiership clubs releasing around 100. This year the Premiership has only received £5m as a salary limit. Everything is tight and jobs are tight.

“So, until the market reopens in Japan and Europe, I just need to wait and be patient until something comes. I’m enjoying what I’m doing, I’m busy.”

He is clear that the home is now Cardiff, where he has a home in Pontcana, near Landaff Fields.

“We’re basically based in Cardiff now. We’re right in the park, we have great neighbors. We like a lot. We have no plans to move away. If I’m in Europe or Japan, I’ll go further I’ll come back. It’s cute, so cool.

“We had our first grandchild about nine weeks ago, so it’s great for me and my wife. Life is a little different, but you move on, right?”

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