Feeley learning valuable lessons as Greens continue to defy odds

There are very few minutes of the day when Jon Feeley does not have a group of people hanging off his every word.

Wharfedale Rugby Union FC head coach Jon Feeley during the Thurday nigh training session at Threshfield, Grassington. (Picture: Bruce Rollinson)

During weekdays it is a collection of attentive seven to 11-year-olds filling his classroom at Bramhope Primary School.

On weekends, and the occasional week night, it is upwards of 25 grown men, ranging from 18-stone props to nimble scrum-halves, who stand in anticipation of his latest direction on the rugby field.

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“Who is the most obedient?” laughs Feeley. “It has to be the children.

“But these guys at Wharfedale are grown men with strong opinions of their own, and it’s very much a case of believing in them.”

In his first five games as a head coach, Feeley has trusted in his Wharfedale players to carry his message onto the pitch, and they have shown their faith in him by winning three of their opening five games of the National One season.

At 34, Feeley is younger than some of the players he is coaching, and the majority of his coaching staff who have proven an invaluable source of support and encouragement.

But as in the classroom, he is understanding quickly that his has to be the leading voice.

“The parellels between teaching and coaching are obvious,” says former Leeds, Rotherham and Sheffield Tigers player.

“There are a lot of similar principles. It’s the question of how can you have a better affect on the learning in the classroom.

“In coaching, as in teaching, you never stop learning. There’s always something new that crops up to challenge you. You’re constantly trying to improve.

“Coaching is probably the most frustrating job in the world because you’ll never reach perfection.

“You’ll never come away from a game being completely happy, and from that point of view it’s very challenging.

“It’s very similar to when you’re a player, only as a coach you don’t have the direct influence on the action.

“A lot of coaching is done away from the ground.

“It’s speaking to players on the phone, other coaches, and in your alone time, it’s reflecting on what you have done well and not so well, and taking things forward and building on them.”

The two facets to his working life leave Feeley little time for anything else.

He started on the road to coaching three years ago when the flying winger recognised his acceleration was on the wane.

A coaching role at Sheffield Tigers led to a place on the staff as backs coach at Threshfields last season under Tommy McGee.

When McGee made the move to Leeds Carnegie, promoting Feeley to head coach role was the natural progression for both club and individual.

“I’m enjoying it a great deal,” says Feeley, whose side’s home win over big-spending Esher last Saturday was their outstanding result to date.

“It’s a fantastic club to be involved with, with great ideals.

“What we lack in terms of finances we make up for in our willingness to work hard and play rugby how it should be played.

“We had a fantastic crowd for the Esher game and they lifted the players time and again.

“I’ve not heard the ground like that before. The stand I was stood on was shaking. It was one of those days that reminds you why you get involved every Saturday.”

Keeping Wharfedale in National One is no mean feat, given that their budget is dwarfed by most clubs and eaten into by the amount of travelling a team in the lowest national tier has to endure.

Nevertheless, Wharfedale have batted above their average for 17 straight seasons, a proud sequence that as it gets longer merely serves to increase the pressure on the shoulders of the head coach charged with continuing to keep the club’s head above water.

“Don’t mention the amount of years,” quips Feeley. “I’m trying not to think about it. I’m relatively pleased with the start we’ve made but what has pleased me more is how the players have reflected on the games we have lost.

“They see them as missed opportunities. They are learning all the time and they are very self-critical.

“It’s a tough old league and I know it’s a cliche but there really are no easy games.

“At half-time in the games against Tynedale and Esher, we were behind, but the things we said to the players as coaches they then went out and put right in the second half.

“Their ability to react quickly has been very pleasing. Within our dressing room we have players that are very capable leaders, and it’s my job to harness that correctly.

“But I have great support from an exciting team around me. Tommy McGee still comes and coaches the forwards, there’s Alex Howarth, director of rugby Mike Harrison and Hedley Verity.

“They often see things I’ve not seen or thought about, and that’s how it should work. They are incredibly supportive.”

Wharfedale’s bright start sees them in the top half of the embryonic National One table, with today’s daunting trip to the capital to tackle Rosslyn Park offering the chance to end a long, unwanted record for the club.

“We haven’t won in London for a very long time,” adds Feeley of the Greens’ away-day blues.

“It’s not a physical thing, it’s more a mindset. But we have worked hard on that and what we can control and how we can influence a game.

“If we take those principles into today’s game then the surroundings, the ground and the history shouldn’t matter.”

Whatever happens, it will be another valuable lesson learned for Feeley.