Will Rod Kafer be the catalyst to make Australian rugby great again?

Spiro Zavos Columnist

By Spiro Zavos, Spiro Zavos is a Roar Expert

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    The headline on the Sydney Morning Herald article announcing the ARU’s appointment of Rod Kafer as the founder/director of a National Coaching Advisory Panel made this Trumpian claim: “Rod Kafer aims to make Wallabies and Australian rugby great again in new ARU role.”

    Kafer, the article noted, has been recruited by the ARU “as a part of a drive to arrest the decline of the 15-man code.”

    Kafer himself had no inhibitions about the enormity of his task, its importance and his own ability. I see all this as a good thing.

    He is aiming high. Good.

    Through setting up a nationwide coaching system at every level of the game (rather like the New Zealand model, perhaps) he wants to bring Australian rugby back to that time “we all remember when rugby was great.”

    Kafer made the important point when talking about his appointment to the reporters that there needs to be a recognisable and accepted Australian way of playing successful rugby. And that this Australian way has to be built on past traditions that suit the Australian environment and the Australian temperament.

    His articulation of these imperatives is one of the best expressions of intent and insight I have come across from anyone involved in Australian rugby for a long time: “When Australia was great, we recognised that there was a team who were innovative, they were thoughtful, they were prepared to bring something a little bit different.

    “We need to establish in Australia a concept of unity, of purpose. What are we about? What are things that when somebody looks at an Australian rugby team play, they can immediately identify?”


    (AAP Image/Adrian Warren)

    What the answers are to these questions is a matter Kafer has not addressed, as of yet.

    This is understandable. It is early days in the project.

    But he did mention this point, specifically: “Every player that gets to Super Rugby level should be able to catch and pass the ball consistently under pressure.”

    For several decades now, the best analysts of how rugby should be played have stressed the primacy of passing. There is a great deal of information about how the team that makes the most passes generally wins the match.

    The rugby history context of this insight that passing skills win matches is that in the last two decades the laws of rugby have been modernised and modified.

    The old rugby football game has evolved into the modern rugby game where scoring tries, generally through running and passing, makes winning more likely.

    I have argued now for some years that the football model of playing rugby – with incessant kicking being the norm – is increasingly less successful than the basketball model, with its emphasis on slick passing and fast break-outs.

    There is one rugby nation in particular that in the last decade has refined and developed the basketball model of playing rugby, New Zealand.

    And which rugby nation has had unparalleled success in that period, with two successive Rugby World Cup triumphs in 2011 and 2015? New Zealand, obviously.

    This obsession with passing skills as the key to unlocking modern defensive systems presented by their opponents was brought home quite sharply during the semi-final of the Rugby World Cup 2015 tournament.

    On a wet day, with a stubborn, resolute Springboks side taking the game to and away from them, the All Blacks came out early in the half-time break and started running through their passing drills.

    During the Brumbies vs Hurricanes Super Rugby quarter-final on Saturday night, the Brumbies made 106 passes to the Hurricanes’ 155.

    The Brumbies kicked 24 times as opposed to 25 by the Hurricanes.

    Despite having virtually all the possession and field position in the first 20 minutes, the Brumbies, with their obsession on the driving maul (which yielded them a try), could not open a significant and winning margin on the battling Hurricanes.

    When they did keep the ball in hand early on, with some slick passing, they scored their first try with some ease.

    In the second half especially, the Hurricanes totally dominated territory and possession. Playing within themselves by making the Brumbies forwards make tackle after tackle to thwart the short-passing attack, the Hurricanes were able to come out of a difficult match with a comfortable victory.

    The few scraps of ball the Brumbies got, they tended to kick away to the disgust of the home crowd.

    Scott Fardy Brumbies Rugby Union Super Rugby 2017

    (AAP Image/Paul Miller)

    To my mind, this loss should be the end of the Brumbies experiment, started by coach Jake White, to make Australia’s most iconic, smart-thinking, innovative and enterprising Super Rugby team play like White’s stodgy Rugby World Cup-winning 2007 Springboks.

    We now come back to back Rod Kafer and his new job of reviving rugby and the Australian way of playing.

    It has been clear to me that Kafer has been somewhat supportive of this latter-day Brumbies style, especially in the years when his mate and fellow former Wallaby Stephen Larkham has been head coach.

    The point here is this style is opposite to the thoughtful, innovative, a bit different sort of game Kafer wants Australian sides to start playing.

    During the warm-up before the Hurricanes match, Kafer was almost exuberant about the faultless way the Brumbies were performing their drills. He predicted a terrific performance from the Brumbies based on this evidence.

    It is history, now, that the Brumbies were terrific for about 20 minutes. But slowly and relentlessly the Hurricanes began to cope with the initial onslaught, then tame it and finally turn on their own onslaught.

    One of the reasons why the Hurricanes could do this and turn the match around so successfully was because the Brumbies were so stereotyped in their play, so ploddingly predictable.

    When Kafer talks about when Australian rugby was great, he surely is referring to the Rod Macqueen era in setting up the successful Brumbies franchise with cast-offs from the Sydney club competition and a handful of Canberra locals, and then the great Wallabies of 1999-2003.

    This Wallabies team held every trophy available to win, including the Webb Ellis Cup and the now elusive Bledisloe Cup.

    The coaching genius who created this team was Macqueen.

    But here is the rub, Macqueen was virtually driven out of the Wallabies because of a group of players, mainly from the Brumbies, who believed in their right to control the team.

    These player power agitators are now part of the rugby establishment.

    David Nucifora, even though his Brumbies won a Super Rugby title, was also driven out of the franchise by the same player power group.

    In my view, the Rod Kafer project is only going to succeed if he brings Macqueen on board to play the sort of elder statesman role, a guru without an agenda, that Wayne Smith has played in New Zealand rugby.

    Widening this discussion a bit more, I’d make the point that the real basket-case Super Rugby team in Australian rugby right now are the NSW Waratahs.

    This season the Waratahs won only four matches out of the 15 they played. Moreover, the quality of the team’s play, especially towards the end of the season, was appalling.

    Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson.

    (AAP Image/ David Rowland)

    Everything fell apart. Some players were clearly not trying. The selections were often bizarre. Tactics on the field defied explanation. Why would Israel Folau attempt a 50-metre kick at goal against the Force when the Waratahs were 12-3 behind, for instance?

    So what happens?

    A former Canterbury Bulldogs executive and former Sydney FC chief executive, Dirk Melton, has been given the task of conducting an outsider review of the Waratahs!

    Why would the Waratahs appoint someone from rugby league and football to resolve the rugby issues confronting the franchise?

    There is a person who could have been selected who was an unbeaten Waratahs coach in 1991, someone who had a long career as a Sydney club player and was branded the Wallabies’ most successful coach after inheriting a team that had conceded 40 points in one half to the Springboks.

    That person was Rod Macqueen, who was also a successful businessman before he became a professional rugby coach.

    So my final points are these.

    The ARU’s initiative to bring in Rod Kafer to invigorate coaching at all levels throughout Australia is a good news story, a terrific initiative.

    Kafer has the knowledge and the confidence to do the job that needs to be done.

    Let’s hope that the Australian Super Rugby franchises who are responsible for the appalling performances this season of not recording even a solitary win against a New Zealand opponent will work with Kafer and the ARU’s High Performance Unit in their effort to renew Australian rugby.

    And, finally, let’s hope that Kafer engages all the talent across the Australian rugby community that is available to be utilised.

    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 (190)

    • July 24th 2017 @ 7:02am
      Mapu said | July 24th 2017 @ 7:02am | ! Report

      At least the players mouths are taped shut so we wont hear how they going to give it to the ab s this year

      • Roar Rookie

        July 24th 2017 @ 8:15am
        Dave_S said | July 24th 2017 @ 8:15am | ! Report

        My guess is they’ll kill it at training this week and then give 115%.

        • Roar Guru

          July 24th 2017 @ 5:35pm
          Ralph said | July 24th 2017 @ 5:35pm | ! Report

          I see what you did there .. ?

      • July 24th 2017 @ 9:56am
        PeterMc said | July 24th 2017 @ 9:56am | ! Report

        Where was Chieka’s tape?

        • July 24th 2017 @ 12:38pm
          bamboo said | July 24th 2017 @ 12:38pm | ! Report

          Dean Mumm has it. Contents unknown.

      • July 24th 2017 @ 10:40am
        Drongo said | July 24th 2017 @ 10:40am | ! Report

        Nothing wil shut your mouth though, will it.

      • Roar Guru

        July 24th 2017 @ 1:21pm
        Jokerman said | July 24th 2017 @ 1:21pm | ! Report

        Cheika’s learning some tricks from the circus. Tape on the mouth makes for a great mime show.

        As for the blindfolding just remember to take them off when you run out against the All Blacks !!

        • July 24th 2017 @ 3:05pm
          Internal Fixation said | July 24th 2017 @ 3:05pm | ! Report

          Was certain that your lads had used all the blindfolds and tape on the poor sheep…. must have found a few extras in your shed eh?

          • July 25th 2017 @ 3:36pm
            Ryan said | July 25th 2017 @ 3:36pm | ! Report

            ..only the ones we export to Australia and land on your dinner plate. But don’t worry, I loaded up on the pineapple juice, bon appetite!

          • Roar Rookie

            July 25th 2017 @ 3:44pm
            piru said | July 25th 2017 @ 3:44pm | ! Report

            you know they’ve run out of material when they revert to a sheep joke


        • July 24th 2017 @ 5:02pm
          Mapu said | July 24th 2017 @ 5:02pm | ! Report

          Might be better to leave them on

        • July 24th 2017 @ 5:04pm
          Mapu said | July 24th 2017 @ 5:04pm | ! Report

          Circus with a clown in charge

      • July 24th 2017 @ 1:49pm
        RahRah said | July 24th 2017 @ 1:49pm | ! Report

        Sorry to disappoint, Phipps has come out at his obsequious best boldly declaring his love of captain Ahab. Give it a day and the usual conga line of ass licking sycophants will declaring their love for the worlds greatest coach.

        • Roar Rookie

          July 24th 2017 @ 4:57pm
          piru said | July 24th 2017 @ 4:57pm | ! Report

          Why does anyone care what the 5th best halfback in Australia thinks?

          • July 24th 2017 @ 5:08pm
            Fionn said | July 24th 2017 @ 5:08pm | ! Report

            5th best? I think that is being overly generous.

        • July 24th 2017 @ 7:35pm
          graymatter said | July 24th 2017 @ 7:35pm | ! Report

          Couldn’t have put it better.

    • July 24th 2017 @ 7:13am
      Sam said | July 24th 2017 @ 7:13am | ! Report

      Catching and passing under pressure is a great building block.

      Bring Campo and Ella into the fold as well

    • July 24th 2017 @ 7:19am
      Bring Back...? said | July 24th 2017 @ 7:19am | ! Report

      Spiro, the Macqueen Wallabies scored tries not just because they passed to a potent backline…they had a pack which could hold its own and often dominate. Finegan was an absolute foundation pillar to that team and then there was a very solid front row, Eales, Giffen etc. Add Kefu as well.

      For all the hype about the ABs “basketball” style, it is only enabled by a fantastic pack which lays the platform time and time again. It’s been the same forever but for some reason our super rugby teams have moved away from this, instead preferring to focus on flick-passes and Folau, and a number 7 who is really a number 12.

      But agreed, something has to be done about our appalling skill set.

      • July 24th 2017 @ 8:24am
        Fionn said | July 24th 2017 @ 8:24am | ! Report

        I’m sensing that Spiro didn’t watch the first Lions Test, the second Lions Test or the Crusaders-Highlanders match.

        This simplistic analysis presented by Spiro about whichever team passes and offloads more = winners is simply not true. Sure, it can be the difference between teams, but the basics of having a solid defence, exit strategy, set-piece is the most important place to start, and make the difference more often than simply passing more.

        You don’t start playing basketball trying to play like the Harlem Globetrotters, or tennis like Federer, you ensure you do the basics well first (which the Wallabies can’t).

        • July 24th 2017 @ 9:29am
          Bring Back...? said | July 24th 2017 @ 9:29am | ! Report

          Indeed, my point exactly.

        • July 24th 2017 @ 10:06am
          Ed said | July 24th 2017 @ 10:06am | ! Report

          Great points BB and Fionn. Our last great team had players who did their core roles well and some had a bit extra, eg: Eales.
          Look at the RWC’99 backline – Joe Roff would have been the weakest tackler, yet we will likely have a few in the first Bledisloe who are weaker in defence – Foley, Beale, DHP’s form in SR this year in this aspect has not been great.

          The Crusaders pack with its five test starters showed the benefit of playing in the Lions series. If they play with that intensity in Sydney, it will be an ugly night of us Wallabies fans and no glittering backline will overcome that.

          And for a team/nation that prides itself on “running rugby”, we are really only good from set-piece ball. Once we have a defensive turnover, often our first instinct is to set a first phase instead of trying to exploit the holes in the opposition’s defence. Game intelligence.

          • July 24th 2017 @ 12:06pm
            Akari said | July 24th 2017 @ 12:06pm | ! Report

            Once we have a defensive turnover, often our first instinct is to set a first phase instead of trying to exploit the holes in the opposition’s defence.

            Agreed. I guess Oz rugby players are still being schooled in that relic from the Rod Maqueen coaching manual of continuity rugby system that worked and then bamboozled everyone back in the 1990s and early 2000s. While the Kiwis have taken this method to the next level, Australian coaches and players have been rather slow to adapt and conquer.

            • July 24th 2017 @ 1:52pm
              Ed said | July 24th 2017 @ 1:52pm | ! Report

              “Brumbies coach Stephen Larkham, a key Wallabies playmaker in the Macqueen era, recently acknowledged they had to start attacking more from turnover ball, but that insight may have come 10 years too late.”


            • July 24th 2017 @ 2:12pm
              connor33 said | July 24th 2017 @ 2:12pm | ! Report

              Don’t we think Beale will go some way towards fixing exploiting turnover ball. He is an instinctual player — and two good examples of this was Mitchell’s try in 2010 in HJ against the ABs and then in the 2015 WC against the ABs.

              But let’s not forget set play rugby–a certain team needed it against the Lions, but could only pull it off once, and even that was a pretty haphazard effort with the ball going to the wrong player in the lineout and players bumping into each other when the ball finally got to the backline. That said, that was a brilliant, instinctual pass to assist the try scorer.

              If folks think the thinking man’s rugby of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s is over, then perhaps they are the one that should be thinking a little more…It will be the blend of this error and instinct that probably wins the 2019 WC. And there’s no reason why instinctual play can’t be mixed with set piece efforts/multiphase rugby–crikey look what Japan what Japan did to SA in the 2015 WC, coached by an Australian no less–no coach of England.

            • July 24th 2017 @ 11:32pm
              Ozinsa said | July 24th 2017 @ 11:32pm | ! Report

              Are you implying this “relic” lessens Macqueen’s legacy. The bloke was an innovator and would come up with something new now to stay ahead of the bunch.

              • July 25th 2017 @ 11:37am
                Akari said | July 25th 2017 @ 11:37am | ! Report

                No Ozinsa and I apologise if it implied so as Macqueen was an innovator and way, way ahead of the bunch back then. He has my utmost respect.

              • July 25th 2017 @ 4:01pm
                Ed said | July 25th 2017 @ 4:01pm | ! Report

                Macqueen was a great coach, probably our best. It worked very effectively for Australian rugby at that time. He was very good at maximising the talents/skills of the players he had.

                Australia’s strength for decades has been attacking from set-piece ball and will remain so. But you would think players who want to play running rugby would relish the opportunities that turnovers could provide to them?

        • July 24th 2017 @ 10:19am
          graymatter said | July 24th 2017 @ 10:19am | ! Report

          I agree totally with your assessment but I would take it further and reference in the Brumbies performance this year. I always felt we would struggle because of our inadequacy at Fullback and Five eight – particularly in the clearing kick and positional kick department. In my opinion there is not a first class side in the world that doesn’t have a world class Fullback and five eight! In my view having highly skilled players with good positional understanding and peripheral vision in these positions is essential.

          Clearly at fullback the Brumbies woke up to this, but too late, by moving Aiden Toua to the wing and replacing with Banks. They should have tried someone else other than Huwera at five eight as well.
          On your assessment with which i agree with we did have a solid set-piece and a solid defence but we didn’t have an exit-strategy and nor did we have five eight that could change it up.

          I think we need to hope CLL keeps recovering well and returns to form and/or we can entice Matt Toomua back for next season.

          Unfortunately for the RC Rugby to come – We face exactly the same dilemma!
          Foley and Folau present exactly the same deficiencies. Neither of them have the kicking game or the attacking awareness and presence of mind in the game to change the tempo.

          Cheika needs to accept this and make those changes. Folau to the wing. Hodge or DHP to fullback. Cooper or Lance to five eight .

          • July 24th 2017 @ 11:06am
            Fionn said | July 24th 2017 @ 11:06am | ! Report

            Agreed, and as long as Foley and Folau are retained at 10 and 15 the Wallabies will suffer from the same issues.

            • July 24th 2017 @ 7:09pm
              Ken Catchpole's Other. Leg said | July 24th 2017 @ 7:09pm | ! Report

              Agreed Fionn. With a certain courageous 10 we are limited by a grass ceiling.

          • Roar Guru

            July 24th 2017 @ 11:06am
            PeterK said | July 24th 2017 @ 11:06am | ! Report

            In defence DHP is playing at f/b and folau wing anyway, trouble is DHP is dropping highballs and missing many tackles. So you have half your wish and its not working anyway.

          • July 24th 2017 @ 1:55pm
            RahRah said | July 24th 2017 @ 1:55pm | ! Report

            Develop Kyle Godwin as a 10. He played in that position for the Australian u/20’s and in the early days at the force. He actually did very well when playing in that spot.

            • July 25th 2017 @ 2:05pm
              scottd said | July 25th 2017 @ 2:05pm | ! Report

              No he didn’t do well in that position at the Force. He is a rubbish 10 at SR level so is miles away from international level in that position

              • July 25th 2017 @ 2:18pm
                RahRah said | July 25th 2017 @ 2:18pm | ! Report

                We must have been watching different games.

              • July 26th 2017 @ 2:54am
                scottd said | July 26th 2017 @ 2:54am | ! Report

                No, perhaps just a different idea on what makes a top level 10 🙂

        • July 24th 2017 @ 4:57pm
          The Sheriff said | July 24th 2017 @ 4:57pm | ! Report

          He contradicts himself, unfortunately.
          The NZ teams actually kick more than the others. The point of difference is that their kicks have more purpose, length and direction.
          The Hurricanes were stifled for most of the first half until the Falcon ( forward pass) got them a miracle try, the Brumbies stopped running the ball and kicked aimlessly (Cubelli and others at fault) and the Hurricanes were allowed to play their game which involves 15 players passing, and catching and kicking purposefully, running to gaps( not into the opposition) and, God help us backing up! Simple stuff!
          The mantra of Australian rugby backplay in the 80s and 90s used to be’ run to the gaps, and back up, back up- both forwards and backs.

        • Roar Pro

          July 24th 2017 @ 6:27pm
          Crazy Horse said | July 24th 2017 @ 6:27pm | ! Report

          It’s hard to exercise core skills when Cheika insists on playing people in different positions to that that they play in club, NRC and Super Rugby.

        • July 25th 2017 @ 12:43am
          Peter said | July 25th 2017 @ 12:43am | ! Report

          But what is more basic than catching and passing the ball, even under pressure?

        • July 25th 2017 @ 3:28am
          ScottD said | July 25th 2017 @ 3:28am | ! Report

          I think he took the forwards needing to win the ball as a given mate.

      • July 24th 2017 @ 9:38am
        Jimbo81 said | July 24th 2017 @ 9:38am | ! Report

        sack Hooper and play a genuine 7 and move Izzy to FB for someone who can kick and cover defend. Simple.

        • Roar Pro

          July 24th 2017 @ 6:27pm
          Crazy Horse said | July 24th 2017 @ 6:27pm | ! Report

          You mean move Izzy to 13/14 I presume.

        • July 24th 2017 @ 9:02pm
          Jameswm said | July 24th 2017 @ 9:02pm | ! Report

          Yep smart thinking, sack the only player the ABs rate.

          • July 25th 2017 @ 10:24am
            Marto said | July 25th 2017 @ 10:24am | ! Report

            ^ Poey is back is he ?

            • Roar Rookie

              July 25th 2017 @ 3:46pm
              piru said | July 25th 2017 @ 3:46pm | ! Report

              Who cares who the All Blacks rate?

              Let them worry about their own team, and the Wallabies worry about theirs.

      • July 25th 2017 @ 9:28am
        NSFW said | July 25th 2017 @ 9:28am | ! Report

        You make some valid points sir – you’d think that’s exactly hat Rod Mcqueen would say

    • July 24th 2017 @ 7:23am
      Gilbert said | July 24th 2017 @ 7:23am | ! Report

      Kafer will need Vlad to make Australian rugby great again.

    • Roar Rookie

      July 24th 2017 @ 7:23am
      Dave_S said | July 24th 2017 @ 7:23am | ! Report

      All I hear is marketing piffle. What is the coaching drill that you use to create a “team who were innovative, they were thoughtful, they were prepared to bring something a little bit different”?

      Of COURSE there should be a program that raises standards in the basic skills – begs the question what was happening otherwise.

      • July 24th 2017 @ 1:27pm
        Perthstayer said | July 24th 2017 @ 1:27pm | ! Report

        Dave S – Absolutely.

        Kafer “has confidence and knowledge”. How about experience in vaguely similar role? I suppose he’ll just learn that on the job.

    • July 24th 2017 @ 7:35am
      Gilbert said | July 24th 2017 @ 7:35am | ! Report

      What are things that when somebody looks at an Australian rugby team play, they can immediately identify?”….. flat backline formation, one of the wallaby standout identity in their dominant days. The best.

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