Omar Mouneimne once lived his life on the defensive, now he’s making a life teaching elite players to defend, writes RYAN VREDE.
My first chat with Mouneimne starts by me explaining the philosophy of this feature to him. ‘I want to speak to the game’s most interesting personalities about the forces that shaped the man and the professional. I want to humanise these men through this process.’
He launches immediately, and for the next 20 minutes he talks about a childhood marred by an ultra-religious father who once held a .357 Magnum to his head, bullying and poverty. He then describes an adult life where he made a fortune as a businessman, only to lose it all through ill-advised investments and reckless spending: four luxury cars, a high-performance Ducati motorcycle, a beach house … All gone.
He sold what remained of his valuables at Cash Converters to pay the doctor’s bills so his son could be born safely. The story of how he tried and failed to save a marriage with his childhood sweetheart of 24 years is heart-breaking.
He also talks about rugby and fighting – he has a background in mixed martial arts and Brazilian jiu-jitsu – and how a combination of the two saved him.
This is also the journey of a South African defence guru who has had the Midas touch wherever he has coached. The Stormers of 2010 reached the Super Rugby final off the back of the incredible defensive systems he instilled in them. That earned him a gig with Italy, where he was part of the coaching team who took them from being ranked in the mid-20s to ninth in the world.
In 2016 he helped build the best defensive unit the Sharks have had in Super Rugby. Now, he has been integral to the Worcester Warriors’ resurgence.
How did your childhood experiences lead you to MMA?
I got bullied a lot. I got beaten down really bad. Like, really bad. I was stabbed twice, guys were hunting me down. It was so bad. After the second stabbing I didn’t tell my mom. My dad wasn’t fully present, he’d turned into a religious maniac, so I kinda figured sh*t out on my own. Eventually my mom found out and she went mental. She took me to a boxing gym and that started the journey that literally saved my life. Later we moved to Cape Town, but I’d learned the Joburg mentality, which was like, ‘If you look at me wrong I’m going to f***ng deck you’. My mindset was that I had to be the toughest guy to survive. So I was just klapping guys for the stupidest things.
Nowadays, you seem far more controlled and composed. How did you reverse this volatile behaviour?
I’ve had a couple of watershed moments in my life. I read a book by Steve Peters called The Chimp Paradox, which teaches you how to control your emotions. I had two worlds in my life – my rough Lebanese, Johannesburg upbringing and then the external world which values Anglo-Saxon sensibilities like restraint and non-violent conflict resolution. MMA and Brazilian jiu-jitsu is like that. If you’re not lucid and highly technical in maintaining your poise, you’re gone. Developing poise, leadership skills, including self-leadership, emotional intelligence and situational adaptiveness became my obsession.
Can you coach fearlessness? If not, how do you ensure a talented attacking player isn’t a defensive liability?
There’s this debate around whether a poor performance or chronic underperformance, collectively and individually, is the coach’s fault or not. It’s always the coach’s fault. When it doesn’t happen for players, it’s because they don’t have the methodology. I do coaching seminars all over the country and I hear things like, ‘My player can’t defend because he doesn’t have heart, he doesn’t have the attitude’. I ask them questions like, ‘Do you have a defence manual? How many times a week do you train defence? How often do you focus on tackling as a skill? How good are you at functional mobility?’ They are exposed and I say, ‘Well then, surely it’s you and not your player’. It begins and ends with great coaching. So yes, you can coach defence. For example, if a novice got into the ring with a boxer who has been doing it for years, he’d get cleaned up because he’s just a puncher. How do you go from puncher to boxer? Training. Once your technical nous and skills improve, you suddenly look super brave. It isn’t that you’ve developed a newfound sense of bravery, it’s because you have the technical proficiency and excellent conditioning to acquit yourself well, and that breeds confidence. Defence is the same. It is the reason we could take a small guy like Gio Aplon and make him a defensive asset, or a lumbering forward like Brok Harris [below] and turn him into a defensive monster.
When did it occur to you that there was an opportunity to implement your skills in rugby?
After I saw a clip on SuperSport Blitz of a high-level coach demonstrating a ruck clean using a crocodile roll. I knew that wasn’t the best way to move a player because I knew the grappling mobility positions to get you the ‘lowness’ in a breakdown that really works. I called up a mate who coached rugby at low levels and asked if I could show him a couple of these moves. After the session he sent me a message that said, ‘You’re about to revolutionise rugby.’ A while later, I was having a conversation with my trainer, who also trained the Springbok Sevens conditioning coach, and he was like, ‘I can’t believe how strong you are for your size and you move like a lightning bolt. Have you thought about doing this for rugby?’ I played the game at a decent level when I was younger, so I’d developed drills based on my fighting training that were adapted for rugby. He told me he’d introduce me to [then Blitzboks coach] Paul Treu. I showed Paul three drills and he said, ‘You’re hired.’
Did you experience any scepticism from the players because you hadn’t played at their level, and how did you handle that?
Talk is cheap. So when guys said, ‘You’ll never tackle me like that, you’ll never clean me that way’ and I cleaned their pipes out, it ended the questions. Secondly, anything I presented I’d spent huge amounts of time obsessively learning, and then adapted it for my purposes in rugby. So the sport science is bulletproof and the drills are designed to teach and improve with functional mobility, central nervous system activation and collision readiness. Once players have gone through a couple of sessions with me they concede it’s game-changing.
You seem to have taken an entrepreneurial approach to what you do in rugby.
That’s exactly right. I made a lot of money through business ventures before I got into rugby. I lost it all because I over-hedged my bets, but I have a skill for solving problems and turning that into success.
Where does that entrepreneurial skill come from?
I had to survive when I was a kid. We had nothing. I started working in retail at 12 years old. I worked in restaurants as everything from a griller to a waiter. When our school tuck shop was closed during exams, I’d bring two bags full of stuff to school to make money. It was pure hustle to survive.
Your influence was first truly seen with the Stormers side, particularly of 2010. What made that team so special defensively?
Firstly, I disagree. The Sharks’ defence of 2016 was better, but that Stormers team was special because you had a coaching team with a high level of technical proficiency, a player group who bought in on a concise defensive game plan with a high level of certainty across all facets of that plan. Also, we’d done the best level of functional conditioning of collisions the world had seen at the time.
During Craven Week the defensive standard seemed low, which is a problem considering this is the next generation of pros. What structures would you put in place to improve the quality of junior rugby at elite levels?
They need to be taught the intrinsic pillars and foundations of defence across all the coaching levels in those schools. Then the coaches in Craven Week need to be taught by a professional who understands the principles, philosophies and rules of effective defence. If you ask coaches and players, ‘Man or ball watch?’ you’ll get a range of answers. Or if you ask, ‘Who is responsible for line speed?’ you’ll get 50 different answers. You need a defence expert to guide the thinking in these areas.
Do you think defence has been unfairly singled out by lawmakers?
I was privileged to be the only coach invited to World Rugby’s medical conference. There, I sat in two days of intense workshops and presentations, and offered my expertise on the defensive aspects of the modern game and how that impacts the players. Because players are bigger, stronger and faster than they’ve ever been, the shapes on attack are on another level – there are multiple attacking options at the line, multiple ball players at the line, all of whom are super fit and can maintain attacking shape, at pace, with great precision for 80 minutes. I tried to show World Rugby that because of all these factors, there is so much going on at the line of defence, and at the last second a player is making a decision on who to tackle. It stands to reason that you are going to have shots that go high, slip above the neck, seatbelt and so on that aren’t deliberate. What’s the answer? More training of players and coaches, designed to help them cope with the demands being placed on tacklers in the modern game.
What’s the next frontier in defence?
It has already come and will only get better: it’s a player who is so studious, who does so much homework on the opposition that his decision-making and confidence is at an all-time high. Couple that with top-class recovery, wellness and periodised workloads with excellent collision skills and you have a superhuman. You are going to have a level of defender like you’ve never seen before. In the past defenders didn’t have that many decisions to make because attacking play wasn’t anywhere near as sophisticated as it is now. The next frontier is players who are able to read play and nullify threats despite the myriad attacking variations available to the attacking team, for the full 80 minutes.
*This article first appeared in the August issue of SA Rugby magazine