It’s the John Connolly versus Eddie Jones Show

Spiro Zavos Columnist

By Spiro Zavos, Spiro Zavos is a Roar Expert

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    john connolly eddie jones

    The nasty John Connolly versus Eddie Jones show has the potential to derail the Wallabies in a Rugby World Cup year in which the national team will need every break it can get to make the semi-final. For those with memories of how devastating splits in a rugby community can be, the Connolly-Jones saga has many (ominous?) overtones of the John Hart v Laurie Mains saga that undermined New Zealand’s 1999 World Cup campaign.

    Hart, like Connolly, was made head coach after a bitter campaign saw his predecessor Mains (read Jones in the Australian context) deposed. When the All Blacks lost the 1999 World Cup semi-final to France, a rugby magazine which was edited by a Mains supporter ran a mug shot of Hart on the cover with the word GUILTY written across it.

    As President Lincoln noted, quoting the Bible in his second Inaugural Address, ‘a house divided against itself cannot stand.’ The powerful New Zealand rugby mansion collapsed in 1999. The chances are that a divided Australian rugby house will not stand up at the 2007 World Cup tournament, either.

    What is the Connolly-Jones row all about?

    If we go to the press clippings and add the background of many of the rumours swirling around the Australian rugby community we get a sense of what seems to be the heart of the matter.

    27 March Tuesday The Australian ran an article by its senior rugby writer, Wayne Smith, which was titled ‘Jones safe at least until the end of the season.’ Smith is an experienced and knowledgeable sports and rugby journalist with strong contacts in the higher echelons of Australian rugby. He is also a fervent Queenslander. Eddie Jones was quoted in the article as saying: ‘I’m loving the coaching, absolutely loving it … at this stage I’m not intending to anywhere else. But this is not to say it won’t happen.’ The QRU chairman, Peter Lewis, was quoted in the lead sentence giving Jones a ringing endorsement. ‘Suffice to say that he’s got a three year-contract, with two years still to run,’ Lewis told Smith.

    Tuesday 27 around midday. The Sydney Morning Herald’s online website Rugby Heaven carries a report that Jones’ days are numbered as the Reds coach. This report is reiterated the next day with an article written by Jamie Pandaram and Rupert Guinness in the SMH titled: Fast Eddie: coach set for a swift Reds exit. “It is believed the QRU was to announce Jones’ departure this morning,’ the article insisted. Jones accused some ‘people playing games.’ Connolly was quoted as saying: ‘If Eddie stay, that is good, if he goes, that is also good.’ The article carries the allegation that ‘Jones is certain Connolly started rumours that the Queensland Rugby Union was ready to sack him, while Connolly denied any involvement. Later came suggestions that Jones started the rumours himself.’ The article also asserts that ‘the two men have a dislike for each other than began soon after Connolly took over from Jones at the Wallabies.

    A couple of obvious questions arise out of this article. Where could these suggestions of Jones undermining his own position, a stupid thing for a coach with 7 consecutive losses to do, possibly come from? And where could the rumours of his imminent sacking possibly come from?

    On Tuesday afternoon and evening the Fox Sports News channel ran with the story of the imminent sacking. Peter Lewis was finally tracked down at Brisbane airport, after attending a meeting in Sydney of the ARU. Lewis denied the ‘imminent sacking’ story and said he was going to have a meeting with Jones in a few days time to clear matters up.

    On 28 March Wednesday the Daily Telegraph’s Jon Geddes lead his story titled Eddie Jones to quit with this sentence: ‘Queensland Reds coach Eddie Jones could quit today and last night accused John Connolly of undermining position.’ The article claimed Jones and Connolly were no longer on speaking terms and ‘sparks really started flying when test fullback Chris Latham injured his leg during a pre-season training session which sidelined him for an extended period.’

    30 March Friday in Greg Growden’s terrific Ruck & Maul Column another element was added to the saga. ‘Judging by what the NSW coach Ewen McKenzie said yesterday on the Waratahs’ podcast, Tah Talk, he also has his differences with Connolly.’ McKenzie was quoted as saying, ‘I probably feel some sympathy for Eddie … I feel a similar scenario is happening in my case.’ Plenty of ‘good second hand sources,’ McKenzie said, were telling him that the undermining ‘is coming from the same place.’ Growden quotes Connolly as saying that he is adamant he is not undermining McKenzie.

    3o March Friday the Daily Telegraph, with Bret Harris writing the story with the title, McKenzie also victim of smear campaign, leads with this sentence: ‘NSW coach Ewen McKenzie has blamed maneuvering for coaching positions after the World Cup in France for the political machinations bedeviling the game in Australia.’ Harris quotes recent speculation that ‘McKenzie would be sacked as Waratahs coach at the end of the season.’ Also ‘Connolly is believed to be interested in becoming Queensland’s director of coaching, with his Wallabies assistant coach Michael Foley coaching the Reds. Foley was set to coach Queensland this year until Jones put up his hand …’ McKenzie ‘has indicated he would be s candidate to replace Connolly at the Wallabies, but Brumbies coach Laurie Fisher appears to be the ARU’s preferred choice at this stage …’

    31 March Saturday the Daily Telegraph has a special column written by Eddie Jones which makes the claim that the sacking story is part ‘of a quite deliberate and consistent practice of trying to destabilize the coaching system up here in Queensland that comes from Connolly, a former Reds coach.’ Then Jones made the point: ‘The whole story of whether I can stay on is a family situation which we will sort out as a family this weekend.’

    What does all this charge and counter charge mean?

    As a rugby writer of long-standing you become privy to all sorts of rumours and information, sometimes they are the same thing and sometimes they are not. I was told about the allegation, denied by Jones, that he ‘is acting like the Wallabies coach and talking to players from all over the country and generally is at war with the ARU to destabilize the whole thing,’ from a well-informed source in the USA some time ago. I’ve also been informed by another well-informed source that ‘Eddie is behaving perfectly.’ He has a 12-year old daughter who apparently is not settling well into the Brisbane environment and it is her education that is the issue about whether he stays in Queensland or takes up the offer to coach the Saracens club in London. I was told some time ago, too, that John Connolly wants to the ARU director of coaching next year. On Tuesday Gary Flowers announced, following the meeting that was attended by the state heavyweights, that a new position of national director of coaching was to be established. I’ve also been told that Michael Foley is being put forward by the Connolly camp as a possible coach of Queensland or NSW. The point here is that Foley won’t keep his job as Wallaby re-start coach when a new regime is installed next year.

    Conclusion: The rumours and the statements made to the media point in a certain direction. Can Jones and McKenzie both be wrong about the machinations of Connolly? We’ll probably find out the truth next year when the various coaching positions are filled.

    Meanwhile, what we do know is that Australian rugby is a divided house that could very well collapse at this year’s World Cup.

    Spiro Zavos
    Spiro Zavos

    Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.

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    The Crowd Says (13)

    • April 1st 2007 @ 10:21am
      Pfitzy said | April 1st 2007 @ 10:21am | ! Report

      Pretty optimistic assessment – I think the foundations will give way long before the World Cup.

      To my mind, Connolly’s mindless plan to pick the fattest players possible, while conveniently ignoring the form guide, is what threatens to derail Australian rugby. Some of the greatest Wallaby and All Black teams didn’t field giants, because it was the guys with the skill and mental strength that did the job.

      Look at Rodney Blake – QLD pundits will claim they’ve done wonders with him, taking him from West Harbour in Sydney as a 150kg teen and trimming him to a positively svelte 130kg. Yet two years in professional rugby and he still hasn’t managed to get to a decent playing weight and fitness. Prominent against soft opposition like England, when the heat came on against the All Blacks and their high-paced game, he was nowhere to be seen.

      Many theories abound that Connolly favours QLD players, and in Blake’s case in particular you’d be hard-pressed to argue. This year, with the excellent form of the Brumbies’ scrum (at last Fisher is making good on his promise to play it in the forwards), Guy Shepherdson should be the first-picked tighthead.

      It remains to be seen that Connolly isn’t doing favours in order to curry his own at QLD. The entire exercise of smoke and mirrors appears to be Connolly’s way of paving his retirement on the Sunshine Coast, while popping in the odd bit of coaching here and there.

      Grant Batty was on NZ television recently, amazed at the level of politics in the game over here. Hardly surprising Grant – put a bunch of these private school toffs in a room and its no surprise they end up in a dick-measuring contest. At least in NZ they’ve learned from their failed World Cup campaigns and have all decided to move in the one direction, at least for now.

      And this sort of politicking is where guys like Connolly will have an environment to flourish in – with two major stakeholder and a group of minority states practically ignore, all you need is the ear of one state president and the majority of his state peers, and you’re in like Flint.

    • April 1st 2007 @ 2:05pm
      greg said | April 1st 2007 @ 2:05pm | ! Report

      Agree pfitzy, and great post Spiro. The problem with Connolly is that he doesnt seem to take risks, he was more than happy to select the usual suspects during his reign and now its almost too late to start experimenting with up and comers before the world cup. He needed to make the hard decisions early. As I keep posting, what do some of these super 14 guys have to do to get a start in the Wallabies, pick the team on form not on who the incumbent players are!!

    • April 1st 2007 @ 2:56pm
      Ben said | April 1st 2007 @ 2:56pm | ! Report

      One word answer I think fellas, “What is the Connolly-Jones row all
      about?” …. EGOS!!!!

    • April 1st 2007 @ 4:28pm
      Danny said | April 1st 2007 @ 4:28pm | ! Report

      I was dumbstruck the Reds appointed Eddie in the first place. His axing following failure with the Wallabies was always going to leave him bitter and I’d be surprised if his unprofessional and critical tongue hasn’t sparked the whole sad situation. Knuckles is playing his part and clearly positioning himself for 08. And MacKenzie is also positioning following his poor season. Tah squad composition – in particular the excess exposure to ex-league players who to a man have let down NSW – is being questioned as Tah discards at the Force perform well. Team selection is also under the spotlight. All three men are under the pump for sure.

      But while all three men play games the ARU continues to rot from the head. I personally believe senior Brumbies players have effectively conspired since 2003, firstly with Jones to remove O’Neill because he wanted a fresh start post 03 RWC, and subsequently with Flowers to make Jones the fall guy for the 05/06 Wallaby performances. They did the same to Nucifora to the obvious benefit of the Blues. Knuckles became a beneficary in 06 and now “coincidently” strongly supports these players. And now we hear a new Director of Coaching position may be created with Knuckles its first jobholder!

      In this professional era most players and management in all codes stay on the gravey train until they are pushed off. Regeneration is tough but necessary.

    • April 1st 2007 @ 5:35pm
      Burgs said | April 1st 2007 @ 5:35pm | ! Report

      With all the rumour and mistrust surrounding Australian Rugby at the moment, real or perceived, I think it demonstrates even more strongly the need for Knuckles successor to be from outside the never ending cycle of ARU-NSWRU-QRU politics.
      We need a new Coach with a winning history who can develop players while taking care of his proven stars, a man who is removed from historical baggage.
      Most importantly a man who knows what it takes to win in New Zealand against New Zealanders in the lead up to RWC 2011.
      Nucifora may very well be a future Wallaby Coach however Australian Rugby is in serious need of an enema, a fresh start with a break from the cycle, so as to rebuild on the strength of our current crop of rising talent.
      There is only one man to meet all those criteria, Robbie Deans, take a bow.
      To yet again go to a Provincial tarnished Coach post Connolly will be a major failing by the ARU leadership.

    • April 2nd 2007 @ 8:51am
      Terry Kidd said | April 2nd 2007 @ 8:51am | ! Report

      I have to agree with the main points in these posts and agree that the rot seems to have started with Nucifora’s ousting from the Brumbies, despite being successful, and it seems to have started because as a good coach he looked at succession planning.

      I did not agree with Connolly’s appointment in 06 but it seems that he got the job because he was the last man standing. Did the ARU see the writing on the wall by only appointing him for 2 years? Am I stretching things by thinking that maybe someone had a little insight and thought that the senior players who orchestrated first Nucifora’s, then Eddie’s demise, would also be going post RWC in 07 and then was the time for a clean out of the cupboard?

      I do not want to see Connolly as a ARU Director of Coaching. In my mind that would only allow for more politics, patronage and backbiting.

      Post RWC I would like to see Mitchell or Deans as Wallaby coach and the team/squad selected entirely on form with no one guarenteed a place.

      Michael Foley has not earnt respect as a coach through performance and would not be the candidate of choice at either the Teds or Tahs.

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