Much-Loved Local Rugby Coach Passes Away

Adrian Hoile, a close friend, pays tribute to Rocky Skinner

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For the last 25 years, the Rugby world has been blessed to have had the services of Rocky Skinner as a coach, mentor, leader and friend. His work in mini, youth and senior rugby has been so profound that to suggest that this biography is anywhere near comprehensive would be a bare-faced lie.

It is impossible to describe in words the impact that Rocky has had on every one who has been lucky enough to know him. For us to comprehend the effect that he has had on the Rugby community in west London, Middlesex and indeed the rest of the world, we would need to research each area of his career and talk to hundreds of people who have been around him, probably over a beer or two.

Whilst I am up for that challenge, it might take a while, so in the meantime I hope that you will forgive me for trying to put together this brief biography of Rocky’s work from my own experiences. Anyone who knows Rocky will understand that the only person that could give the full story of Rocky’s life in Rugby is Rocky himself, but as a true gentleman he would probably not divulge the details. After all, ‘what goes on tour, stays on tour’ and Rock has been on a lot of tours, some of which we will touch on later.

Rocky coached many youth players and was a real “player’s man”. He had time for youngsters, always saw the best in them and therefore got the best out of them. He always said that he felt it a great privilege when youngsters allowed you to be part of their world. Rocky was also an enthusiastic player, who could not resist telling everyone that he had achieved one of his life’s ambitions when he played a senior match alongside his own son. A kind and generous man, Rocky had time for everyone (except, perhaps, for the odd Committee person here and there!) 

Rocky’s coaching journey started in 1988 when he decided to get involved with his son’s age group at Richmond, taking the reins of the U7 ‘B’ team. He learnt the job by doing it, using his sons as guinea pigs in the family garden, making sure that new drills and games would work. His coaching philosophy was clear and simple; he expected every player to be capable of keeping the ball alive. He labelled it “Poppy Ball” and later “chaos rugby”. He led that group from U7’s until U19’s. Once you played for him, you became one of “his boys” and the combination of top-end coaching, incredible fun and the sense of being part of a family rather than a team, made it impossible to leave.

His success was noted and Rocky was invited to take several roles with Middlesex County, coaching different age groups and eventually the County Clubs side. On one occasion, Rocky was asked to put together a Sevens team to play as Middlesex ‘B’, just to make up the numbers at the National U19 County Sevens. Sure enough, they went on to be crowned Champions! It was at Middlesex in 2000 where Rocky and Adrian Hoile (Hoiley) started coaching together, they went on to become life-long friends and worked together for the next 14 years.

The advent of professionalism saw him setting up the Academy at Richmond, competing against many of the Premiership sides and later helped create the blueprint for ‘Development’ U23 sides, first at Richmond and then Rosslyn Park, where a new generation of players were exposed to “Poppy ball” and the warmth and friendship of Rocky Skinner.

It was during his time at Richmond that he became heavily involved in youth rugby and young players, he created the “Rocky Skinner” Cup (a name given by Richmond RFC) which saw an U21 match vs London Scottish played on New Year’s Day each season. Rocky saw it as a chance for players to return from University and still be part of a club, and the match also gave younger players a big game to aspire to play in.

In the Club's own words: “The Cup will serve to remind the Club of the huge debt owed to Rocky, who inspired and led successive generations of Colts/Under 21 players at Richmond, becoming a legend in his own lifetime and making friend too numerous to mention.”

Post-match nights at the Sun Inn invariably included Rocky-led drinking games and more often than not ‘Father Abraham’ (clothing optional) would make an appearance to the delight and occasional horror of the other customers and the incredibly patient owners, Joe and Margie.

Rocky’s move to Rosslyn Park was big news at the time, and it was his loyalty to Hoiley (who had already been at Park for a season transforming the old 3rd XV into a development squad) and the opportunity and talent of the youth at Park that finally got him into the club. Rocky and Hoiley remained at Park for several seasons developing the pathway from U17’s into the senior squads and creating a model for player retention that has been used widely and successfully elsewhere in the country. Rocky made many friends at Park, where he enjoyed many Saturday nights in the company of his players, members and 1st XV players He was also famous for riding a bike around the Club bar after one game; where he got the bike from is still anyone’s guess. He took great joy in seeing players turning out for the 1st XV. Club Captain Harry Rowland was Rocky’s U19 Middlesex Cup-winning Captain. He always pushed young players in front of selectors and fought their corner.

He played a part in reviving big fixtures for Park at U21 level, with games against Oxford and Cambridge University put into the fixture list helped create a real buzz in the U17-U23 age group. This Buzz helped forge a great unity and the Development group were a big part of the Rosslyn park social make-up, holding their own Dinner and playing as a team from the Club in 7’s tournaments.

After achieving everything that they wanted in terms of youth Rugby, Rocky and Hoiley turned their attention to adult Rugby and to Chiswick RFC, where a core group of ex-Richmond and ex-Rosslyn Park players had congregated, along with other talented individuals. Despite the fact that it had been almost 10 years since some of these players had been coached by Rocky, it was like they had never been apart and a new chapter in the gospel of Rocky began to be written.

Whilst at Chiswick, Rocky helped shape an incredibly warm, friendly and well-run club that won the prestigious Middlesex Cup at the start of last season, convincingly beating Staines in the final. This was the first time Chiswick had won the county trophy in their 55-year history, and was also Rocky’s first Middlesex Cup at Senior Level. Of course, at U19 Level Rocky and Hoiley had won the cup 5 times with various clubs.

At Chiswick, Rocky won more friends and encouraged people to enjoy the game, he was a driving force in helping the club improve off the pitch as well as on it and was a big supporter of the clubs growing minis section, coached by one of Rockys own youth players at Richmond and now 1st XV player.

Like every real rugby man Rocky loved tours, in his words “proper rugby tours, where the games are hard, the drinking harder but above all, it’s about the memories”. Stories of Rocky’s tour antics are legendary and legion. Two favorites are when Rocky took Richmond Youth tour of South Africa with his U17 Squad. Within hours of landing in Durban, Rocky had already made friends with the Chief of Police of the city … and not in the way that most would expect. Using his trademark charm, Rocky managed to secure the Durban Police sports ground for training, had organised a final match and had got the squad invited to a post-match BBQ hosted by the Chief. Following in true touring tradition, Rocky presented the Chief with a Richmond jersey and the Chief presented Rocky with a box of 500 out-of-date condoms!

Another story comes from the Rosslyn Park Development Squad tour of Sweden where one night the squad had been over excited and caused some damage to a local bar whose owner was the local “Hard Man”. Word got round that the squad had to pay for the damage or they would be taught a lesson in the town later that night, so Rocky decided that the best course of action would be to go and see the owner and have it out so to speak. Rocky marched into the local bar - like a scene out of the Sopranos with rather tough-looking people everywhere - and demanded to see the owner. What then happened over the next 6 hours will remain a secret but needless to say Rocky had charmed the owner into playing in the last tour match the next day and had also lined up some beers and a place to drink them after the match.

Rocky’s team talks were also something of legend, not afraid to be honest and tell it like it was, he was able to motivate players and press the buttons that made them give the extra 10%. One team talk to a group of U15 players down in Redruth who were losing 12-5 at half time had one player saying recently that “I will tell my grandchildren the story of his changing room rant… but only when they are old enough!” The opposite coaching team tapped him on the shoulder and asked if he thought being that honest was useful for the team, Rocky’s response was that at 15 you still needed to be able to hear the truth and react to it, the reaction will be positive or negative. His side won that day 35-12.

Players will also tell you that Rocky stood by his words and if you wanted to speak to him he was always available to you, day or night, with an honest view and words of encouragement mixed with some home truths and what can only be described as industrial language. His loyalty to his players, no matter the ability, was legendary, he made everyone feel part of something and still followed every player he ever coached in some way.

Everyone he coached or met has a story about something that Rocky had said or had done that had changed their lives for the better, and not just on the rugby pitch. He had the gift of knowing exactly how to get the best out of people and what's more, to show people how to get the best out of themselves. He had a way of making players feel ten foot tall and play beyond themselves, he also had a way of grounding a player with a word delivered in an instant and remembered forever.

He was in essence, the epitome of the true Rugby Man of integrity, who will be greatly missed by those who knew him.

August 21, 2014

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