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.