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Being back in NZ ‘just so good’

21 March 2022
Former Highlander Kendrick Lynn with his family, from front left, twin boys Leo and Remy (5), daughter Sophie (7) and wife, Rebecca on board the TSS Earnslaw in Queenstown before they jetted back to France.bbPHOTO: TRACEY ROXBURGH
Former Highlander Kendrick Lynn with his family, from front left, twin boys Leo and Remy (5), daughter Sophie (7) and wife, Rebecca on board the TSS Earnslaw in Queenstown before they jetted back to France. PHOTO: TRACEY ROXBURGH

Kendrick Lynn is not yet 40 but his coaching career has taken off. Hayden Meikle tracks down the former Highlanders and Stags utility back, who is briefly back in New Zealand after being named head coach of leading French club Lyon. By Hayden Meikle

How’s life, Kenny?

It’s very good because I’m back in New Zealand, ha ha. It’s been two years. We’d booked flights, but then the quarantine rules changed. But then they removed them just before we got a break in the Top 14, so we pulled the trigger. It was pretty hectic, but we got here. It’s beautiful. My wife, Becs, is an Invercargill girl but her parents are in Queenstown, so we’re here for about eight days then going up north to see my family.

How many children do you guys have?

Three kids. Soph is 7 — she was born right after we arrived in France. And we’ve got identical twin boys, who are 5. Remy and Leo. They’re full-on little fellas.

What was it like reconnecting with family in New Zealand?

It’s been amazing. It was such a strange period, those two years, not knowing exactly when we could get back. It was pretty tough, psychologically. So it’s hard to describe how this feels. It’s just so good, man. Kiwis are awesome. And we went straight to the supermarket and stocked up on the good peanut butter and chocolate milk and stuff.

So wind back the clock. When did your New Zealand playing days end?

At the end of my time in Southland, I went up and played a bit for the Steamers, and I was kind of but not really involved with the Chiefs. So I went to France at the start of 2014, and went straight to Lyon halfway through their season. I was there on a six-month contract. That got extended, and suddenly it’s been eight years. In my second full year there, my knees were getting a bit busted, and the surgeon was sort of saying that if I kept playing, I’d risk needing a knee reconstruction. We were in second division then and we had a new coach, Pierre Mignoni. He was looking for some more coaches and he asked if I would join him as a bit of a trial. That’s how I got into coaching. I was lucky enough to come home for a bit after that and spend some time with Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown at the Highlanders.

Had you always thought coaching would be a career for you?

I really love it. When I was playing for the Stags, I was working as a relief teacher at Southland Boys’ High, so that idea of teaching and stuff was something I’ve enjoyed. And I always kept a little black book of cool ideas from coaches I had. I suppose I thought it would be amazing if coaching became a genuine option, but I didn’t know what would happen.

It sort of started as skills coach, but right from the get-go, I took the backs. Basically, every year it just morphed into more and more responsibility. I’ve been taking attack and defence. The way we’ve done it over there is slightly different in that Pierre and myself look after both sides of the ball together. Maybe one year I will take more of a lead on attack, or another year I take more of the defence. It’s been awesome.

And now the big gig. You will be head coach of Lyon next year?

Yeah, there’s been a bit of a change. Pierre has gone back to Toulon to be director of rugby. Lyon is getting sort of a director-slash-manager, Xavier Garbajosa, who was a bit of a flamboyant French fullback in his day. So I will be head coach, which is cool. I’m looking forward to it. It frees me up to look after the on-field stuff, and not on things like contracts. I’ve done my French coaching certificates, which was an interesting experience.

Who’s the best player you’ve worked with?

We’ve had a few good players. Charlie Ngatai has been really good for us. He’d had a few concussion issues but we knew if we could get him right, he could be really good, and he’s been outstanding. Liam Gill, the openside from Aussie, was very good. Right now, Jordan Taufua has been playing well. Lima Sopoaga joined us this year. Kiwis everywhere, ha ha.

Looks like Lyon is doing quite well?

Yeah, sitting third in Top 14 at the moment. It’s been an awesome ride. My first year coaching was our first year back in Top 14, and it was pretty brutal. We solidified our spot and ended up making semifinals for two years. Then that first Covid year, we were second when the competition was cut short. Last year we had a poor year — we finished ninth — but we’re going well this year.

What’s the club like off the field?

It’s interesting because it’s gone from a second-third division team to now right up there with Clermont and Toulouse and those clubs. There’s massive development happening around the club. It’s incredible. We’re building our own hotel, and there’s a medical centre. The majority owner is a local guy who made it big in events, and basically the club will be self-sustainable and have its own revenue streams.

Do you guys like living in Lyon?

It’s a cool city. Easy place to get around and lots of things to do with the family. It’s a bit of a food capital, too, so lots of nice restaurants. Our kids are in a bilingual school. Family is a big emphasis for the rugby club. Lots of the guys in the squad have kids, so our after-matches are an absolute shambles — kids running around, tackling each other and knocking over tables. Kids come to our captain’s run, and we have big Sunday gatherings where we have a bouncy castle and things. We ended up buying a house just before Covid about half an hour out of the city, so we have some fresh air. We’re surrounded by cows, so it feels like home.

Been to any big football games?

Olympique Lyonnais is historically a big team. They’ve dropped off a bit but they’ve got an awesome stadium and they still get big crowds. I’ve seen PSG play. That sort of thing is on another level.

All we hear is that Ireland and France now rule the rugby world, that the All Blacks are slipping behind. What’s your take on that, given you can see what is going on over there?

Look at the Irish, especially since the Joe Schmidt era. They are super well-drilled, and their physical preparation has gone up a level. They love the gym but it’s based around speed as well. They’ve got tight forwards who are ball-players. In the north, defence is such a big part of the game, so they can suffocate you and be physically dominant with their defence, but now they can move the point of attack pretty well. The French are interesting. It blows your mind how many players they have, because they’ve got 30 professional teams. They’ve always had the potential but all they’ve really done is get their house in order. Their coaching set-up is far better, and that’s filtering down. The French national team used to be sort of an island on its own but now they work in with the clubs much better. Along with all that, France has got some excellent players coming through. New Zealand is still far ahead in terms of mental skills, but the gulf in other areas does not exist any more. The All Blacks had this amazing run, with so many world-class players, and it’s very normal to have a bit of a dip. When you look at all the resources and the playing numbers overseas, you realise how well New Zealand rugby has done for so long.

If coaching doesn’t work out, you can always turn to writing. Do you remember doing the odd column for the ODT back in the day?

Hah, I’d forgotten about that. I actually used to do a bit of an in-house newsletter for the Highlanders too, which was a lot of fun.

Do you think about coming home permanently some day?

Yeah, I’ve always thought about the kids, and getting the majority of their schooling in New Zealand. France is awesome, but the schooling is really different, less outdoorsy and less sport. So that’s a huge factor. I think Covid has made a lot of us reassess our priorities. We will definitely look at it at some stage. I’ve come through the French coaching system, which is a bit different, so I’d love to come back some day and see if I could offer a different viewpoint. For the moment, I’m focused on Lyon. And it would be awesome to win something in France.

Republished courtesy of the Otago Daily Times.

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