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.

    A former rugby lock, cricket no.11 bat and no.10 bowler, and surfboat rower. A fan of the major team sports in Australia.

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    The Crowd Says (25)

    • August 10th 2011 @ 9:50am
      Jim Boyce said | August 10th 2011 @ 9:50am | ! Report

      Sheek – Good effort and looking forward to the rest. Re Palmer and Roper, I was directly involved. Palmer was very much a motivational coach and coached the team that beat the returninbg Wallabies in 1963. As you have observed re Ken Catchpole and the 1961 S Af. Tour, the coaching position was treated as a bit of an afterthought by the ARU administration. The Rugby press was also pretty dismissive of the coach, who was usually not described as such in those times but usually got the title of Assistant Manager.In those days , there were very few books on Australian rugby tours and usually got a bit part in Lions and Bok tours that included Australia and NZ.
      Re Roper, he was more of a trainer than a coach. I would not describe him as being motivational. By the time Roper took over as Wallaby Assistant Manager , there was a strong group of senior players both in the forwards and in the backs as well as captain ( John Thornett ) who was established in that position even though he changed positions into the Front Row. Roper’s knowledge of back play was pretty limited and he relied on Catchpole, Ellwood and Lenehan. There was a similar situation with the forwards. Roper had Bill MacLaughlin as his Manager on both the 1963 and 1966-67 tours and they tended to work as a duo. MacLauglin had acted as coach and was part of the selection process. Having said all that Roper was a good trainer.

      • August 10th 2011 @ 3:29pm
        sheek said | August 10th 2011 @ 3:29pm | ! Report


        Always a pleasure to have first hand info. BTW, what was Roper’s background?

        Was he a Sydney first grade player, for example?

        • August 10th 2011 @ 4:47pm
          Jim Boyce said | August 10th 2011 @ 4:47pm | ! Report

          Sheek – Roper played for the Army during WW2 and for Manly. I think that was at first grade level but probably in the late 1940s and certainly a fringe First Grade player. I started playing First Grade in 1960 but when he was appointed Assistant Manager in 1962, I had not heard of him. To be appointed Asistant Manager on a tour, you had to be able to get time off. Roper worked in the State Government in something like the Stamp Duty Office and this was not a worry for him. Upto 1966 , he had a 5-6-1 record and 4 -2 record against S Af. I think he was well connected inside the ARU but there were better coaches around such as Dick Tooth, who were not prepared to be away from their profession for 2 monthes in the case of the 1962 and 1964 NZ tours and 4 monthes in the case of the 1963 S Af tour. Until 1995 professionalism, this factor needs to be considered and there were many non-sport considerations that determined an Australian coach. I am interested in your project as it is quite difficult to work out if there was a coach. Upto recently, many ex-players agreed with Shane Warme that a coach was something you went to the game in.

    • August 10th 2011 @ 10:00am
      Sean Fagan said | August 10th 2011 @ 10:00am | ! Report

      I think you’re right Sheek to start with Roper and the 1960s. The very idea of a “coach” for a rep team/tour reeked of professionalism, increasingly so the further you go back in time. The tour captain really had the final say, even over the manager. Even in RL there were many early Roo tours that had no coach. Many early touring teams from NZ and Australia took with them a trainer, but the counter argument was it was cheaper to simply engage someone when they arrived.

      I wouldn’t put Stan Wickham down as a coach. He wasn’t actually named in the 1908 Wallabies tour party at all (an injured knee earlier that season ruled him out of contention as a player), but given he had first played for NSW in 1895 and was much loved in Sydney rugby, there was a public outcry calling for him to be added to the tour party as a sign of “public gratitude”…in other words, give him a free trip around the world as a reward for long service. The NSWRU suddenly found an assistant manager was needed, and Wickham was offered and took that role. By all reports he did a wonderful job,and obvioulsy he would have been a valuable resource for capt Paddy Moran, but I haven’t seen coaching mentioned as something he took on.

    • August 10th 2011 @ 10:15am
      sheek said | August 10th 2011 @ 10:15am | ! Report

      Thanks Sean,

      When you look at the old touring sides lists, the assistant manager was often a euphemism for coach (keeping in mind the amateur ethos).

      So I think it’s fair to say the assistant manager was a de facto coach in most situations. Certainly more so from the 1950s onwards.

      It’s interesting that from the 60s onwards (some early decade, some later decade), most countries moved towards regular coaches.

    • August 10th 2011 @ 10:54am
      Tissot Time said | August 10th 2011 @ 10:54am | ! Report

      Thanks Sheek. Of interest Fred “The Needle” Allen who holds a 100% win record as All Black coach rates Des Connor as his half back for his all time All Black team.

      • August 10th 2011 @ 8:35pm
        sheek said | August 10th 2011 @ 8:35pm | ! Report

        Tissot Time,

        Thanks for that, very interesting. I think Connor was also selected as the best halfback for the 75th anniversary of the NZRU in 1967, which was only a few years after he retired. The next year he was coaching the Wallabies against Allen’s ABs!

        However, in the 80s & 90s, the Kiwis became conscious of selecting one of their truly own – either Chris Laidlaw, Sid Going, Dave Loveridge, Justin Marshall or Graeme Bachop – as the best halfback in their history. My personal favourite Kiwi halfback is Loveridge.

    • August 10th 2011 @ 10:57am
      Pablo said | August 10th 2011 @ 10:57am | ! Report

      Thanks for this, Sheek.

      Who is Bryan Palmer? You may well ask…

      Junior rugby is, as a rule, coached by some kids dad (or mum!) who may have seen some rugby played, maybe even played themselves once. These are an essential ingredient at the grass-roots level… enthusiastic and committed volunteers, who take on board what can be a difficult job, with varying degrees of expertise. Certainly this was my experience in junior footy. Back in the mid 70’s, when I played under 16, I was fortunate enough to be selected to play at the district level. We turned up to our first training run to be greeted by some grumpy old bloke that none of us youngsters had ever heard of… Bryan Palmer.

      Pretty much straight away, you knew that this coach was different, he knew what he was on about. I think collectively, we learnt more about the game in 6 months than in all the previous years of combined playing. In our first trial match against a neighbouring district, a team that would boast future Waratahs and a Wallaby, we were given a thorough hiding of 80 or more points. By the time we played them again later in the year, we were unlucky not to have won… such was the experience and knowledge that old Palmer imparted.

      At the State Championship that year, we were in a close tussle with our opponents, with Bryan screaming out tactics and advice from the sideline in his typically gruff manner. The opposition supporters could be heard to say (words to the effect of) ‘who is this old bloke, what would he know, blah, blah, blah. When the response came that he had coached the Wallabies, his detractors soon fell silent.

      A great Rugby man was Bryan Palmer.

      • August 10th 2011 @ 3:30pm
        sheek said | August 10th 2011 @ 3:30pm | ! Report

        Thanks Pablo – I especially love hearing these kind of stories.

    • Roar Guru

      August 10th 2011 @ 11:12am
      Argyle said | August 10th 2011 @ 11:12am | ! Report

      Sheek – enjoyed your article. Mate didn’t we play Wales in Australia in 1977? Is that not when Steve Finnane broke Graham Price’s jaw and JPR Williams actually played blind side flanker for the Weslh due to injuries? or was that 1978? Either way I am looking forward to the rest of the article. For my two cents i reckon Peter Crittle was the best coach the Wallabies never had. He had a good track record with Sydney and NSW and could have been a good Wallaby Coach.

      • August 10th 2011 @ 3:35pm
        sheek said | August 10th 2011 @ 3:35pm | ! Report

        Uncle Argyle,

        No, there were no tests in 1977. The ARU was stone motherless broke. It couldn’t send the national team anywhere, & it couldn’t afford to bring anyone here.

        Adidas came onboard as the new playing kit supplier in 1978, plus providing funds for other things. I also believe, although others might have to back this up, that the NZRU basically funded the Wallabies to NZ in 1978.

        In 1978, we had two home tests against Wales, winning 18-8 in Brisbane & 19-17 in Sydney (where Finnane broke Price’s jaw).

        The series in NZ was so close in the end: 12-13, 6-22, 30-16.

        • Roar Guru

          August 10th 2011 @ 4:50pm
          Argyle said | August 10th 2011 @ 4:50pm | ! Report

          Thanks for clearing that up for me. Thank God for Addidas then or Greg Cornselson may have never got those 4 tries in 78. Look forward to your next piece.

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