Wallabies coaches since 1962: Part I

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Australian rugby has always been blessed with quality coaches, from the fire-and-brimstone approach of David Brockhoff, to the intelligence and nous of Bob Dwyer. In the lead-up to next month’s 2011 Rugby World Cup, I reflect on some of Australia’s rugby coaches.

BRYAN PALMER (1962, 67).

Who is Bryan Palmer, you ask? Most people have never heard of Palmer. And I bet most administrators, journalists and researchers wouldn’t know Palmer’s unique role in Australian rugby.

Indeed, Palmer himself wouldn’t have given it a thought right up until his death in 1990.

Australian rugby has had coaches ever since the early days. The first official Wallabies coach, as far as I’m aware, was ex-Wallaby captain and three-quarter Stan Wickham, who accompanied the Wallabies to England and Wales in 1908/09.

Since then many more coaches have accompanied touring teams overseas, but this practice only became consistent in the 1950s.

Providing coaches for a home series was less certain, and less consistent, since there was an IRB ruling that home test teams could not gather together until three days prior to the test. This was after all, the amateur era!

In 1961, the Australian selectors placed unbearable pressure on the slim shoulders of a very talented, but young Ken Catchpole. Not only was Catchpole making his test debut at age 22, but he was also saddled with the captaincy-coaching duties. What were they thinking!

When the team took off for a short tour of South Africa, there was Catchpole, still captain and still coach. The tour was a disaster, with the Wallabies losing both tests heavily.

So in 1962, the selectors learnt their lesson, and opted for the 63 year old Palmer to coach the Wallabies in the two-test series against the All Blacks.

A bullocking winger in his playing days, Palmer never played an official test for Australia, although he toured New Zealand with the Wallabies in 1931. He was also chosen to tour Britain, Ireland and France in 1927/28, but declined the tour, with his wife about to give birth to their first child.

I don’t think it ever occurred to Palmer, or anyone else, that he was the first of a continuous line from 1962 to the present, of regular Wallaby coaches.

All Palmer was interested in, was getting his players up for the series against the All Blacks, and somehow stemming the tsunami tide of those black behemoths from across the Tasman. Both tests were lost. In an unusual situation, the Wallabies were to now tour New Zealand for three further tests, but Palmer was unable to make the trip.

ALAN ROPER (1962-67).

If Palmer enjoys the position of ‘accidental hero’ in being the first of a continuous line of regular coaches, then Alan Roper enjoys the distinction of being the first long-term coach of the Wallabies, holding the position both on tour and at home, from mid-1962 to early-1967.

I know very little about Roper myself, whether he was an ex-grade player, or what his rugby resume was before he came to the Wallaby coaching position. If anyone out there knows more about Roper, please share!

Roper enjoyed some great days in the sun, especially against the Boks. The series in South Africa in 1963 was squared up at up two-all, with the Boks needing to win the last test to win the series. In 1965 at home, the Wallabies won both tests.

The Wallabies headed off to Britain, Ireland and France full of hope for a successful tour. They had many great stars – Catchpole, Hawthorne, Brass, Marks, Cardy, Boyce and Lenehan in the backs, and O’Gorman, Davis, Guerassimoff, Heming, Crittle, Miller, Johnson and skipper John Thornett in the forwards.

The team was vastly experienced, talented and expected to do well. But the tour soon turned to mush.

Reserve hooker Ross Cullen was sent home for biting an opponent’s ear, despite severe provocation. This decision apparently fractured the team. Tjornett fell ill and only played the last international against France.

Just two of five tests were won, although the team also enjoyed victory over the Barbarians. Injuries, illnesses and unrest over the biting incident made it an ultimately unhappy tour for many of the players.

Roper himself was burnt out and retired as national coach. In 1967 the Wallabies had just two tests, one at home to ireland, and then a quick trip across the Tasman to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the NZRU.

Bryan Palmer returned to coach the Wallabies for a further two tests, ensuring that the line of regular successive coaches was maintained.

DES CONNOR (1968-71).

According to Spiro Zavos, Des Connor was probably as good a scrumhalf as Catchpole. Reading between the lines, you sense Spiro might think Connor was better, but is unwilling to say so publicly.

Connor, born in Queensland, had the unusual distinction of playing 12 tests each for both the Wallabies and All Blacks. Connor suffered defeat in only one of 12 tests in the black, but managed just one win and one draw from 12 tests in the then green!

Some Kiwi scribes considered him the best number nine to wear the black jersey. However, many more consider it heresy that an Australian born player could be better than any other NZ scrumhalf.

Consequently, Connor has been booted back down the pecking order.

His Wallaby coaching record was abysmal, with just two wins from 14 starts. But it wasn’t his fault. In his first test as coach in 1968 against the All Blacks, he lost his captain and best player – Catchpole – to a wicked ruck injury.

Many players had either retired or defected to league in 1967/68, and the national team was entering the ‘ice age’ of abysmal results that would reach its nadir in 1973, following the brief sunny period from 1963-65.

But Connor was an innovator. He is credited with introducing the short lineout to test rugby.

We don’t blink an eyelid these days when a team calls for a short lineout, but in 1968, the Kiwis were furious and called the practice “cheating” (fancy that)!

By 1971, having lost the home series to the Boks 0-3, lost all seven tests against them over three years, Connor quit.

BOB TEMPLETON (1971-73, 76, 79-82).

Fellow Queenslander Bob Templeton was asked to take the Wallabies to France at the end of 1971. Tempo, as he was universally known, was the “polly-filler” of Australian rugby coaches during the 1970s.

He was the guy the Australian Rugby Board turned to when no-one else better wanted the job.

Tempo was a far better coach than many people appreciated, as evidenced by the rise of Queensland rugby in the mid-70s onwards, of which he was an integral part.

Just a quick note that the Wallabies played no tests at all in 1977, apparently because the Australian Rugby Union was flat broke. How things change, or perhaps how they stay the same!

The series with the French was split, and Templeton coached the Wallabies again in 1972/73. If 1972 was bad enough with the team in NZ tagged the “Woeful Wallabies”, they hit rock bottom in 1973 when they lost to Tonga.

Two further heavy losses on tour against Wales and England, and Tempo was out of the national coaching job. But he would be back.

Tempo coached the Wallabies gain in 1976, and yet again from late 1979 through to the tour of Britain and Ireland in 1981/82.

Later in his career, Tempo became a much valued assistant coach to successors Alan Jones and Bob Dwyer, and a mentor to Rod MacQueen.

DAVE BROCKHOFF (1974-75, 79).

Another ex-Wallaby, this time a flanker, Dave Brockhoff was a fire-eating, brimstone-talking kind of coach. He didn’t mind mixing up his phrases, and depending on your viewpoint, he either understood or mangled the English language!

Brock was big on discipline, and he was big on forward power. As far as he was concerned, the ‘nancy-boy’ backs didn’t get the ball until the forwards were well and good finished with it!

Beginning in 1974, and developing further in 1975 and 1979, the development in the Wallabies play as espoused by Brock, became apparent.

In 1975, perhaps Brock took the hardline attitude too far. In the “Battle of Brisbane” against England, there were running brawls throughout the match.

England prop Mike Burton was unlucky to be sent off, and some Wallaby forwards were seen putting the slipper into English players on the ground.

It wasn’t pretty from either side. On the end of season tour to Europe, the Wallabies’ forwards lack of size and technique was exposed on British and Irish rugby fields. And against British refs!

Brock’s greatest achievement was preparing his team for a one-off test against the All Blacks in 1979. This proved to be the Wallabies first series win against the All Blacks since 1949.

The forwards, led by new skipper Mark Loane and old skipper Tony Shaw, were magnificent, while the backs, with Paul McLean and Tony Melrose orchestrating deep kicks, kept the All Blacks unbalanced for much of the match, and in the end won the match 12-6.

Part 2 tomorrow – Darryl Haberecht, Bob Dwyer, Alan Jones – and the modern coaches compared.

I used to think I was a pretty good rugby lock, but now realise I was deluded. My nickname is a truncation of my surname, so I'm not Arabic! However, sometimes I imagine myself as a Beau Geste in the French Foreign Legion, fighting evil, righting wrongs, promoting good and rescuing damsels in distress.

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