Just a kid from Porirua
Don Tricker is one of the finest coaches to come from Porirua and is current New Zealand Rugby Union high performance manager. He spoke to Kris Dando about growing up in Porirua and his golden run with the Black Sox.
So you’re Porirua born and bred?
I was born in Elsdon, grew up on Champion St, went to Cannons Creek School, Brandon Intermediate and Porirua College. I live in Papakowhai now. Growing up was extremely uncomplicated, playing sport, going to school and spending time with friends. My absolute best friends today are guys from Porirua College, even though we’re a diverse group.
Was softball always your game?
My grandfather was Buck Laws, who helped bring the game to Wellington and was a leading umpire in the early days. I played football and rugby briefly, but in Porirua in summer it was softball or athletics. It matched the demographics.
How was the coaching in your early years?
There were two coaches who made a big impact on the way I later thought as a coach. Neil Tuffrey — we used to call him Mr Tuff – and Phil Reeves, who everyone called Haggis. People in Porirua would know those names well. Mr Tuff brought a group of us kids all the way up until we were 15 and taught us some amazing life lessons, especially the value of being part of a team. Haggis coached me in the years when softball got hard, when I was playing adults – he taught us about having class in victory or defeat, and that, to me, is very important in sport. Sport is about making lifelong friendships and learning about yourself.
Was it hard to move from Porirua to play for Poneke-Kilbirnie, at 22?
Porirua was my home town, but I needed a change. I’m grateful to PK because it was there that things started to happen [ regional and national titles] that helped me get into the national side.
How did it feel to make the New Zealand side in 1986?
I was 26 when I was called up. It was a great time to be involved in softball because the regional and national scene was thriving. Games were televised and there was huge community support for the sport. It was a great feeling to represent your country. My highlight in the national team [ 1986- 91] was the 1988 World Series, when we won silver. We lost to the US and it was bitterly disappointing, even though the US had an amazing team.
How did you become involved in coaching?
I really got into coaching with Poneke-Kilbirnie in 1996. I did that for a while [winning regional and national titles in 1997-98] and New Zealand came calling. It wasn’t easy going in there because I was coaching very good friends. Relationships had to change.
What sort of Black Sox team did you inherit in 1998?
Mike Walsh had laid an outstanding platform and there were players like Mark Sorenson, Dean Rice and Kere Johanson. For me, it was about understanding the bigger picture – creating an environment that people wanted to be in and being flexible enough to cater for anything that happened. I was lucky I had a group of players who were incredibly talented and wanted to maximise their potential.
Did you have a particular coaching philosophy that you tried to instil?
My focus was understanding the needs of the players. The risk that I always considered was that if you begin to leverage your own experiences on players, you can run into trouble. I wanted to raise their awareness of their own performances and transfer responsibilities to each player – if you get these two things right, they can deliver under pressure. The culture we had was built on integrity and respect – for each other and the team.
Two world titles, in 2000 in South Africa and in Christchurch in 2004. There must have been challenges in each tournament?
South Africa wasn’t the easiest place to go to and much was made about this. But it’s about context. Yes, we had to travel a long way and yes, the accommodation wasn’t the best. But we prepared for that and we determined what was really important to the team before we left. So, when we arrived we got on with it. In Christchurch it was about love. We loved having family close and winning in front of our home crowd was special. We lost [pitcher] Marty Grant to an injury and another player had a traumatic marital break-up, but we overcame those.
Was it easy to walk away in 2004?
It actually was. I’m indebted to softball, always will be, but I had a career on hold and needed to be a husband and a father. I had got a job in high performance with Sparc [Sport and Recreation New Zealand] in 2002 and wanted to be a dad. I didn’t miss softball as much as I missed my family.
Are your three teenage kids into softball?
I never pushed them, but they grew up with it. There’s always a glove around the house. I looked to coach whatever sport they were into – softball, rugby, netball, football, golf or cheerleading. It’s what dads do country.
You co-authored the report that looked into the All Blacks’ failure at the 2007 World Cup. No pressure, then.
It wasn’t easy. People were really grieving [after the loss to France in Cardiff]. I was trying to draw information and not be judgmental, and formulate key themes on what went wrong. I wasn’t invited into any All Black meetings for a while.
You’ve been in a high performance role with the New Zealand Rugby Union since 2011. A busy role?
I’m involved in strategybuilding, talent identification and performance consulting right across the board in New Zealand rugby, from the under-15s to Super Rugby, referees, coaches and the All Blacks. I’m still coaching people, it’s just in another context. The technical side of sport is not what I’m interested in – it’s the people.
Your job must make one heck of a conversation starter among your mates.
My friends don’t believe I have a real job. The cool thing for me is I’m in an industry I’m incredibly passionate about and every day is different. I do get to go on All Black tours — not all of them – but I am working.
What’s harder, being a coach or a player?
A coach. When you see what players go through and how tough things might be, it’s hard for you as coach. All you can do is put the best strategy and preparation in place and teach responsibility and values.
Do you get to see much rugby played around the traps?
I get to a few games at Norths, and go to Paremata-Plimmerton and Tawa on occasion, too. I find it hard to just sit and watch a game though – I’m watching it to understand how the team got to a certain point. Often I’ll watch a game twice, knowing the result, so I can analyse it without the anxiety of needing one team or another to win. Do you still coach softball? I love doing it and will continue to do it for Paremata-Plimmerton. Even when I was playing I coached kids. That’s just the nature of the sport – it creates opportunities for you and gives you rich experiences, so you want to give it back.
How much did growing up in Porirua influence you?
It all started in Porirua. It was where I grew up, went to school, played my sport, made my friends. It’s where my family is. If I’m ever getting too big for my boots, my friends will always sort me out. At the end of the day, I’m just a kid from Porirua.
Don Tricker: ‘‘Sport is about making lifelong friendships and learning about yourself.’’