Some 18 months on from his abrupt departure from the Arms Park, John Mulvihill is back coaching Cardiff players.
He’s doing so in the world famous colours of the Barbarians, who he is in charge of for Saturday evening’s encounter with Spain in the city of Gijon on the Bay of Biscay.
In a nod to his two and half years at the helm in the Welsh capital, the Aussie has selected five players he worked with there in Rey Lee Lo, James Botham, Scott Andrews, Kirby Myhill and Owen Lane. Since parting company with the then Blues, he has been employed in Russia, first with the national team and then CSKA Moscow, which has seen him operating against the backdrop of events in Ukraine for the past four months. But he still retains a home in Cardiff and sees that as his long-term base.
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When we catch up for a chat, I find him in bubbly mood, enjoying the unique mix of rugby and socialising that the BaaBaas offers. But things were very different back in January 2021, amid his premature departure from the Arms Park following a home defeat to the Ospreys on New Year’s Eve. He admits it was a tough time and that he went through an “angry period” following his exit.
“You look back and think would I have done things a little bit differently and there are probably one or two things I could have done better. Probably the trust factor is something. I am really trusting in people and maybe that’s something I need to re-think in that environment,” he said.
“I think I give everyone the benefit of the doubt and I probably wouldn’t be as hard a taskmaster as other people. When my wife meets someone for the first time, she can tell me straight up if they are decent or not. So I maybe need to take it a little bit slower with some people in the future. I will definitely be going into my next job with my eyes really wide open.
“The biggest thing for me at the end in Cardiff is I got away from being on the pitch. I am a good coach and in my best in the green space. But I spent so much time on the rugby management board side, on recruitment meetings, the director of rugby role, looking after the Academy, making sure everyone else did their job rather than me doing my job.
“In a way, I was so good at making sure everyone else was ok, I was redundant in my role. I wanted to make sure we had a good environment and everyone knew what they were doing and everyone was looked after, but at the end of the day I probably neglected what I needed to do. That’s something I wouldn’t do again.”
Explaining how being axed from the job affected him, he said: “I suppose you lose a little bit of confidence along the way, but then you realise I’m actually a decent coach and a good man. So you just get on with it. I was probably stuck in a bit of an angry period for a bit, but that’s not 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 in terms of what you could have done a little bit better then you can move on. It’s all about learning. I am in my 50s and I am still learning. That’s the way it goes.”
Even though he has been working far away from Wales, Mulvihill still keeps close tabs on how Cardiff are getting on.
“I watch all their games because I put my heart and soul into that place. A lot of those young kids got their first opportunity with me. So I want them to do well and it was a bit sad looking at what happened to them this season, but there are still some good people in there and some good boys. I hope it turns around for them.”
Finding himself out of work on leaving the Arms Park, it was a question of what next for the former fly-half who has had previous coaching spells in Ireland and Japan, as well as his native Australia.
“I had a bit of time to reflect. You need to do that otherwise you go round in circles. But I wanted to keep busy, I wanted to keep coaching,” he said.
“When the opportunity to coach the Russian national team came up, I said ‘Yeah I am going to do it’ and I enjoyed it. I came home and was thinking what’s next and then the club (CSKA Moscow) rang me and said can you come over and coach us. I am still head coach there and I am due to go back in two weeks time as the season restarts again.”
So what has it been like working in Russia given the situation with the war in Ukraine? Did he consider leaving his job?
“I was committed to the group and I didn’t want to let them down. All of our foreign players left, so we’ve been giving a lot of young kids a game.
“I feel really sorry for the players. They are like players anywhere. They are really concerned that everyone hates Russia and hates Russians. The reality is there are really good people there at the club. A lot of them have families in the Ukraine or are married to Ukrainian women. Some of the boys had to go across the border to get their grandparents out. It affects everyone. Moscow is one of the most amazing cosmopolitan cities I’ve ever been to. I think people just want things to get back to normal.”
Right now, Mulvihill’s focus is on the Barbarians and Saturday’s game against the Spanish national team at Estadio El Molinon in Gijon. It’s the second time he has coached the famous invitational team, having linked up with countrymen Alan Jones and Brian Smith for a Sydney showdown with their homeland of Australia in 2017.
“To be on a Barbarians trip and have fun, where you don’t have a lot of structure about your week, is cool. It reminds you again about why you like being involved in the game,” he said.
Mulvihill was due to work with former All Blacks coach Robbie Deans this week, but then the plans changed. “Robbie had to pull out last minute, so I am doing it myself. I decided I was going to do it the way I wanted to do it. I picked the team and set up the training.
“We keep it really simple, really basic. I have got 443 Test caps in this group. We have got guys who have been to World Cups, guys who have won Triple Crowns and Grand Slams, the whole lot. I don’t have to tell them what to do. You just keep it simple and let them play.
“We could have picked a Welsh Barbarians like the game against England last weekend where they picked all the French, but I didn’t want to do that so I have got ten different nationalities here. We are in the bus, the music is on, the boys are chatting and laughing. Life is pretty good. It’s just nice to be around this group and to be involved at the top end of the game.”
Then, of course, there’s the legendary social side to the Baa-Baas. How is he coping with that?
“I am a bit dusty today! When I walked down stairs earlier to get on the bus for a spot of touch down the beach all the boys had beers in their hands.
“We did a proper training session on Tuesday and then went out and had a team dinner and that sort of developed into team drinks. People were getting in the early hours of the morning.
“When we met up at the start of the week, I said to them we are not going to be filling out well-being sheets because I know your sleep is going to be s*** and you are going to be dehydrated. Our well-being is making sure your mate wakes up in the bed next to you. That was our mantra from the start, so it’s been good fun.
“I have either coached or coached against a lot of these boys. It’s pretty cool to sit down to talk to them over dinner and talk about other stuff outside of rugby, what makes them tick.
“Dan Baker got married last week and he’s on his honeymoon here with us. We have guys who have just had babies. It’s quite cool to find out the back stories of these guys.
“For Devin Toner and Tom Wood, it’s their last hurrah, 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 duties as was the case with George Kruis, who landed a hat-trick of conversions against England at Twickenham last Saturday, including a cheeky back-heeled effort?
“There was a bit of a kick-off in the training and the boys were starting to practice. Some of the guys were lining them up and I said ‘No you are not getting a kick because you are not retiring’. Only those retiring will be lining them up. So those two have had a bit of practice.”
Finally, what about the longer-term future for the 55-year-old Mulvihill? Where does that lie?
“It’s been a bit of a tough time in the game, through Covid. The Welsh teams have released 50 odd players, the English Premiership clubs have released about 100. The Premiership has got only £5m this year as a wage cap. Everything is tighter and jobs are tight.
“So, until the market opens up again in Japan and Europe, I just need to wait and be patient until something comes up. I am enjoying what I am doing, I am keeping busy.”
What he is clear about is that home is now Cardiff, where he has a house in Pontcanna near Llandaff Fields.
“We are basically based in Cardiff now. We are right on the park, we have got really nice neighbours. We love it. We don’t have any plans to be moving away. If I am in Europe or Japan, I will just come back and forth. It’s lovely, very nice.
“We had our first grandchild about nine weeks ago, so that is pretty cool for me and my wife. Life is a little bit different, but you move on, don’t you?”