Chris Hitt Interview: My experience with Poland helps me understand what Wales are trying to do

Chris Hitt was in charge of the Poland national side during the recent Men's Rugby Europe Championship
©Wojciech Szymanski/Poland Rugby Union

From Wales to Germany, from Germany to Poland, and from Poland now to the unknown.

This has been Chris Hitt’s life in rugby. 

Having worked with the Welsh, German, and Polish rugby unions, he has always been hell-bent on achieving one goal; progress and helping others develop.

“When I accepted the job, our focus [at Poland] was on getting promoted to the Men’s Rugby Europe Championship, but it was clear that once there, we would be extremely lucky if we avoided relegation,” the former Poland head coach tells TRU.

“The idea was to learn how to bounce back and build a long-term and stable program.

“In the first meetings we had, the board asked ‘Can you get us promoted?’, and I just thought to myself one game at a time as we had finished in fourth and fifth in the last four/five seasons.

“We finished as the Rugby Europe Trophy runners-up but got promoted thanks to the new format, and knew immediately the monumental challenge ahead.”

But this wasn’t Hitt’s first time working with Poland, as he briefly joined the team in 2018.

“My journey in the Rugby Europe world started back in 2018 when Duaine Lindsay, the head coach at the time, invited me to join Poland’s staff and work in the set-piece.

“It escalated from that to taking more responsibilities in the Men’s or Women’s game, the youth grade or the 7s. It helped me to get to know Poland’s reality before joining them full-time in 2021. Between 2019 and 2021, I had a two-year spell with Germany, working on the development side of the program.

“In 2021, Poland contacted me and after some time, I accepted the opportunity to sign on as the head coach of the men’s senior side. Looking back on what we were able to do, I think everyone has to feel happy. The union wanted promotion to the Men’s Rugby Europe Championship, which we successfully achieved. The players liked the program and evolved and we built some depth in the squad.

“After two and half seasons, my contract was up and they decided to not extend it. We were able to complete the long-term in a short time. As for the Men’s REC, it’s important to look at the numbers and players [despite Poland being relegated this season].

“In 2023, we played with a more seasoned squad and kept growing the foundations. In 2024, we were able to bring in some of the newest talents from the Under-20s, like Mateusz Kolas and Alexander Pama, creating a real mix that will help build a new future for Poland and that is the main thing for me.”

But before jumping into the Rugby Europe universe and leading Poland into this year’s REC, Hitt worked for the Welsh Rugby Union for more than seven years.

“I first started working with the Welsh Rugby Union back in 2011 as a development officer, working with kids and it helped me progress as a coach, especially in how to deliver the message and how players take it. I remember at the time that I wanted to be a PE teacher, and to be able to work in this type of environment was always my goal.

“I worked then with the 7s program, with stints with the Welsh and Samurai teams, which was decisive for my growth as a coach. For me, my coaching journey has been great and I’ve seen it all, working with youth grade teams and then with seniors, jumping from the XVs to the 7s.”

Our conversation sticks with Wales after they finished in last place in the 2024 Six Nations, with fans and pundits concerned about what the future holds for the nation but Hitt offered a reasonable opinion of why Welsh supporters shouldn’t despair.

“Concerning Wales, I think there are facts that we should reflect upon, and my experience with Poland helps me understand a bit better the Welsh situation. 

“I see where Warren Gatland is coming from with the squad at the moment. There’s the bigger picture, a long-term one, and it all starts by giving experience to these new talented players. 

“It takes time and patience to develop and grow, and when you try to do it on an international stage, it’s hard to do it. We all know that in the Test match scene, it all comes down to one thing; winning. 

“But for these guys to get the exposure and to learn, they need to play games. I am very excited to see where this squad goes in four or five years, and how will they develop.

“I don’t support the theory that Gatland is throwing a team out there. He knows what he is doing, and we’ve seen that before with other Welsh and [British and Irish] Lions teams. We have to understand that not all teams are at the same level of team and pathway development. 

“Look at Italy, the emphasis they’ve put on the younger players, and they are starting to reap the rewards of them going through the ranks. For me, this opens up the Six Nations and makes it an exciting tournament to watch.

“You need a plan and strategy, something that I think has lacked in Wales for the past six years. We changed the coaching staff quite a bit, and that hindered the long-term planning. The Under-20s underwent a lot of managerial changes and it did hurt their development but now with Richard Whiffin, you can see stability, and the team has done better, compared to 2023. It is important to not rush for the panic button and just look to the 2024 results. Give it time to bloom and see how they will perform in the future.”

This is the same kind of mentality Hitt had with Poland. The goal was set to create a sustainable and credible long-term project, one that he hopes will be built upon in years to come despite relegation from the Men’s Rugby Europe Championship in 2024.

“One of our biggest challenges was the player pool available as we had little numbers to tackle the international scene,” he adds. 

“The club scene in Poland is very diverse, with players from South Africa, New Zealand, Georgia, Romania, and Ukraine but when you look at the number of Polish players ready to take on the Test match challenge, we lacked in that area. 

“We had to find Polish players plying their craft elsewhere, and we were lucky to find more than a few, even if most of them weren’t at a fully pro level like you find in Georgia, Portugal, Spain, and Romania. 

“We searched in youth academies in England, Ireland, and Scotland for players eligible to play for us. It is a lot of searching and finding as there isn’t a clear pathway as you find in the Tier 1 nations. It takes a lot of time and extra work behind closed doors.

“There are other obstacles that we had to deal with, the fact that most of our players have a job outside of rugby. For the last game against Belgium [in the recent Men’s Rugby Europe Championship], we couldn’t call on two of our main starters as they had to go back to their jobs or they might get fired.

“It’s challenging, and it is because of this - and much more - that I find the conversation of what we have to do off-pitch more important to establish a long-term project.”

In 2023, Hitt and his staff took the Under-20s and guided the team to sixth place in the Under-20s Men’s Rugby Europe Championship and while the senior side finished bottom of the REC this year and will be relegated from that level, the former coach is measured about his time in charge.

“For me, it was a great learning experience to be able to work in this environment and face different and difficult challenges. 

“I did much more than what I expected to do, like searching and booking flights and hotels for players and giving help on the logistical side of things. 

“It took time away from what was my main role in the team, and I should’ve made that known from the start. I can’t shy away from the results, especially with what happened in the Men’s REC, but dealing with high expectations and accepting certain responsibilities that weren’t in the job description wasn’t the ideal scenario. Nonetheless, it was a positive experience for me.

“My focus is to help my players feel pride in their work. With Poland, I hope people understand the circumstances and how the players worked 100 per cent to deliver a positive result to their fans. I want players to grow and feel happy with themselves. I feel frustrated that I won’t continue the journey with them, but for me, I just want the best for them.”