So a review was conducted, and a new appointment was made. But the two aren’t necessarily related, and nor might that be the limit of changes.
Are we seeing a genuine attempt to improve the game nationally, or is it merely window-dressing; being seen to be making the changes seemingly demanded by an unfulfilled public?
It’s hard to say, really, and probably even unfair to make judgements so soon on what has clearly been established as long-term planning for the betterment of rugby in this country.
Scott Johnson’s appointment as Rugby Australia’s new Director of Rugby is an interesting one.
On one hand, the removal of Michael Cheika’s overwhelming autonomy and the inclusion of a rugby reporting line that should include a level of account that probably hasn’t existed before, should be a good thing.
But on the other hand, will Cheika’s release from the off-field distraction cited during Monday’s press conference actually free his on-field thinking? And how will he actually perform within these new and unprecedented confines?
There’s no question in my mind that Rugby Australia thought the newly-minted National High-Performance Plan was going to be the big-ticket item in the announcement. CEO Raelene Castle led off with this in significant detail, outlining the amount of dialogue, agreement and no doubt concession among the Super Rugby sides that had been achieved in bringing everyone onto the same page from a high-performance pathways perspective.
And in absolute fairness to her and Rugby Australia, this has been the sort of thing that has been both long discussed and long desired. The examples of New Zealand, Scotland and particularly Ireland were used with good reason, and undoubtedly the expectation will be that this re-aligned, for-the-national-interest way forward will deliver the same improvements that those countries have enjoyed over time.
The appointment of Johnson, with the brief to “lead the delivery of the new National High-Performance Plan” was to be the bow that tied it all together.
But as soon as Castle and the RA statement continued that Johnson in his new role, “…will oversee the Wallabies program,” their desired message was always going to be left behind. This ensured the narrative was no longer about the national good, but rather implementing a kind of change that is visible but nowhere near as expensive as sacking coaches.
The confirmation that Cheika’s assistant coaches had been granted a stay of execution only underlines this point.
Castle said on Monday that Cheika “has made recommendations on changes [to his coaching team] he’d like to make”, but that they’ll work through the process with Johnson. And that she expected that Johnson and Cheika would commence discussions on this and all other matters “immediately.”
In all reality, nothing will happen on this front until the New Year and when the discussions do commence, Johnson would be doing his role and the Wallabies review an immediate disservice if he didn’t move all members of Cheika’s team – not just the early sacrificial offerings of Stephen Larkham and Simon Raiwalui – into the crosshairs of scrutiny.
But Johnson’s delayed arrival in Australia until after Scotland’s Six Nations campaign is complete further complicates things in a way that only Australian rugby can.
Scotland were and are well within their rights to insist that their home season is not compromised, especially given their rise to a record-high seventh on the World Rugby rankings.
But to what degree can Cheika commence his 2019 planning? And how involved in that planning can his assistants be if their tenure is yet to be confirmed? And how will Johnson juggle the dual roadmaps of Scotland’s short-term and Australia’s long-term future?
On that front, the most important, most immediate next step needs to be the appointment of the new independent selector to sit on the national panel with Johnson and Cheika in the same fashion Grant Fox operates over the ditch. And the biggest test of that appointment will be the true independence of said appointment.
Ideally, it needs to be someone like a Phil Mooney; someone still involved in the game to a decent degree, but with little or no connection to either Cheika or Johnson.
There is no question that there was and is a lot of good news coming out of these announcements. Clearly, a lot of thought has gone into them, and a whole lot more work behind the scenes again has gone into the alignment of all the national elite performance stakeholders.
And this all clearly contradicts Cameron Clyne’s absurd implications that all this has happened as a result of the end of season review, and from which he promised change by Christmas. I honestly thought that boneheaded performance last week couldn’t be topped, but yesterday’s follow up went awfully close.
With all this said and done, I’m open-minded about the impact Johnson’s appointment, the independent selector, and the national realignment can have.
As someone who has long-bemoaned the crippling self-interest within Australian rugby, moving toward a set-up that centralises all the elite performance pathways toward the national teams can only be a good thing. Centralised contracting is probably the only piece missing.
But like all good Australian rugby announcements, time is going to be required to know the full benefits.
And until then, all we have is hope and guesswork.