Allan Bunting gives Last Word on Rugby an exclusive interview while in Lockdown, as the rugby sevens landscape is affected directly by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Coronavirus has seen legs of the HSBC 2019/20 Sevens Series postponed, and significantly, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics has also been removed from the short term goals for Bunting and his New Zealand (NZ) women’s sevens team.
Read his reaction to that, and how the co-coach of the Black Ferns 7s side is managing his professional and personal life in Lockdown.
Allan Bunting: Rugby Sevens and family life in Lockdown
The 2019/20 season had been to date, a successful one. New Zealand was leading both the women’s and the men’s standings, and for Allan Bunting and his group, it will be bitterly disappointing not to continue their winning record.
“Yeah it’s disappointing [the series being postponed] but that was not in anyone’s control. We heard it first from World Rugby, and we already thought it was doubtful with all the political stuff happening in Hong Kong, we knew it was going to be tough to go there. And then once the Coronavirus started developing; we were hopeful but, as legs were postponed it was confirmed it was a whole lot worse. So that was fully accepted [that the season was officially halted].”
NZ Rugby and the Black Ferns normally train at their hub in Mount Maunganui but, when the world realized that the pandemic was eclipsing earlier estimations, Bunting and his team reacted quickly to the new restrictions. The 48-hour notice for NZ residents to prepare for a Level 4 ‘lockdown’ period of four weeks meant he returned to his home.
“We were still training at the time, and it didn’t hold a purpose after a while. We thought ‘we are actually training for nothing’ and the focus went from rugby to health and to family”. Bunting returned to be with his wife and children. “We all made sure we did the right thing by our community and our country”.
— Sky Sport NZ (@skysportnz) March 20, 2020
The rugby sevens fraternity are a tight-knit group. Bunting has been a player, assistant coach with the men’s team, and since November 2016 the coach of the NZ women’s team. He co-coaches the NZ women’s team with Cory Sweeney and like most leaders of sports teams, has had to adapt to the lack of face-to-face coaching and certain challenges at home.
Coaching takes backseat to family for Black Ferns 7s
“Family life has always been our first priority for us. Our program isn’t just about growing good rugby players, it’s about growing good people. Families always first for us”, and that sentiment will be shared from the management to each and every one of the ‘Sevens Sisters’.
Individually, returning home has been a unique experience. He usually spends Monday to Friday at the training hub, when the team is based in New Zealand. So being a fulltime Dad has brought benefits and challenges – ones that his players can fully relate to.
When asked about how he personally had adjusted to the lockdown, whether any new goals had been set, Allan Bunting’s answer was family-focused. “My whole life for the last ten years been challenge after challenge, after challenge, so my goal was to Not to set myself any goals.
“I don’t get much opportunity to be with my family, and right now that’s a big enough challenge in itself. I love it though being able to really connect with my young sons and my daughter. I’ve been away for the majority of the last ten years, and it’s something I’ve really embraced.”
Daily walks to the park or to the beach have revealed bonuses that Bunting had not appreciated. “I’ve been away so much, and you don’t realize we live in an amazing place. We’ve found little places down at the beach, the boys find little fish and crabs in rock pools. Finding things to interest them and keep them amused, we’ve found an amazing little life during this time that we’d have never have found.
“Trying to shut my mind off from work and with the kids around, it’s been a challenging journey but really valuable too.”
Allan Bunting still holds vital connections with Team
“We do quite a lot of Zoom [meetings] and we have quite a good connection. We’ve got a system in place; I’ve got a group of players I look after. We connect with those players, and they’ve got a couple of players each they connect with.
“We [Bunting and Sweeney] connect with our leaders once a week. Making sure that they are staying healthy, got all the support they need wherever they are. Usually, we travel together, and our whole vision is about traveling in a Waka. But everyone is in their own waka at the moment, and being respectful this situation is extremely different so that connection is so players have got all the support they need.
“Then some of the things are just having someone to talk to. I know it’s not in-person face-to-face, but it’s what we do regularly.”
He admits that the future for the World Series is ‘looking quite grim’. Not quite knowing if any postponed events will be planned, especially with the International border restrictions in place. While the nation transitions through differing levels of lockdown, both Cory Sweeney and Allan Bunting must re-evaluate their team goals.
But what can be reflected on, is their own success. Winners of the New Zealand Coach of the Year award at the NZ Rugby Awards, it was a pleasant reward. “We were probably a little bit surprised. Obviously, Steve Hansen didn’t quite get the result he wanted at Japan but, obviously, we feel grateful and privileged. We are proud of what we’ve done as a team.
“Three years ago we set some goals, and that was to win pinnacle events.”
Over the course of the last two years, that has been achieved (and more). Commonwealth Games gold was followed by the Rugby World Cup Sevens title in San Francisco.
Women’s sevens team community-minded approach to Isolation
Returning the interview back toward the team and how they are coping with isolation in the Covid-19 era, LWOR asked Bunting about the method and speak more about any programs in place for the players. “Quite a few of our girls have been doing this for a long time. They have had every sort of training program. They’re pretty self-reliant, so there are no further expectations to be ‘training up a storm’ right now.
In fact, the group has been actively encouraging and supporting the community through social media. The ‘Isolation Nation’ television show has interviewed many Black Ferns players, to see how family life is key at the moment. It has shown many of the girls’ Instagram and TikTok videos online too.
🔦 SPOTLIGHT | From putting in the mahi on her makeshift gym to stepping into the world of Tik Tok, find out how @StaceyFluhler is spending her time in isolation on the farm.
— Black Ferns (@BlackFerns) April 13, 2020
With decisions on the Level 2 restrictions on social distancing to be revealed, it may still be some time before Allan Bunting can assemble his full group altogether. Small groups may be allowed but full-contact sport is still a long way down the track.
“For us, we have a vision of leaving Mana in our wake. There is more ways of doing that then just on the rugby field. Right now we can really help our community and our families to try to get rid of this Coronavirus, and do the right thing.
“By what we do now, we can lay the pathway for rugby afterwards. The focus isn’t about programming and coming out of this fully-fit (we can start training when we are out of it). It’s making sure we have our people healthy in mind, body, and soul”.
Already an inspiration to young female athletes and rugby players, Allan hopes that his player’s leave a mark that is a positive one. And the rugby public certainly admires the coach and his team’s mark left on the Sevens Series stage.
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