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How Rugby Australia got it so right, and the Panthers so wrong

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Expert
25th April, 2019
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When Wallaby coach Michael Cheika met with Rugby Australia in August last year, his job was on the line.

The men in gold had lost ten of their 14 internationals in 2018, lowlighted by three All Black hammerings of 38-13, 40-12 and 37-20 for an overall 115 points to 45, with the All Blacks crossing for 17 tries to just five.

And still no Bledisloe Cup since 2002.

Cheika survived that meeting, with Rugby Australia stating he will see out his contract until the completion of the Rugby World Cup in Japan in November.

But there would be changes to reign in Cheika’s status as the sole selector.

In December, Scott Johnson was appointed to a new position as the Australian Director of Rugby and a selector.

The former Parramatta and Eastwood flyhalf-centre was Scotland’s Director of Rugby at the time, and a former coach of Wales, USA and Scotland.

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In February, Michael O’Connor, the former dual international centre-winger and former Australian Sevens coach from 2008 to 2014, was appointed the third selector – the new status was complete.

Two highly qualified selections who are not only strong-willed but have long track records at the highest level.

Those appointments took some courage from Rugby Australia, an organisation not renowned for having any vision nor for making the tough decisions.

Yet the general reaction among rugby fans has been negative, believing Cheika will still get his way thanks to O’Connor being quoted as saying he should get the team he wants.

Why O’Connor said that remains a mystery – it’s not the man as he’s proved to be over the years.

The reason why he was appointed a selector was to debate selections, not rubber-stamp Cheika’s thoughts.

In short, future Wallaby selections will be lively affairs with the emphasis on form, not CVs, and players in their rightful positions.

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So Rugby Australia got it right. The Panthers, however, got it so wrong.

I’ve known Phil Gould for 40 years, since he kick-started his playing career with the Panthers.

He has always been a highly intelligent performer, a privilege to interview, and as the years rolled by, he’s forgotten more about rugby league than the vast majority will ever know.

He’s about to end his club career where it started at the foot of the mountains.

To use his own words, his job as general manager of Panthers rugby league has become redundant.

If there’s one word in the English language that will never apply to Phil Gould, it’s redundant.

He’s the most successful NSW State of Origin coach in history with six series wins and a draw in eight attempts.

He’s a two-time NRL premiership-winning coach with the Bulldogs in 1988 with a 24-12 win over the Tigers, and a 19-12 victory over the Raiders in 1991, plus a losing 14-18 grand final to the Raiders in 1990.

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His long-term stints with Channel Nine and columns in Fairfax have been right off the top shelf, so how on earth could Gould be redundant?

Panthers chairman Dave O’Neill can provide the answer.

While Gould was successfully organising the NRL’s most productive coach in Wayne Bennett to take over at Penrith, O’Neill was blindsiding Gould by signing on Ivan Cleary, who Gould sacked in 2015.

Ivan Cleary at Panthers training.

(Photo: Renee McKay/Getty Images)

There was a second reason: that with Cleary as the coach, there was little likelihood his talented son Nathan would go elsewhere.

The balance sheet reads O’Neill’s decisions has the Panthers with two wins from six in 12th spot on the ladder and struggling with a 45-point for and against deficit despite a strong roster.

Gould’s balance sheet reads getting the Panthers out of debt, building one of the biggest junior bases in the NRL with 24 clubs and over 8500 registered players and completing an academy that is the envy of all sports.

As Panthers CEO Brian Fletcher said yesterday – “We probably wouldn’t be standing here today if it wasn’t for Phil Gould”.

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Yet the saviour of the club is about to ride into the sunset.

That will be a lucky break for a rival club as the Phil Goulds of this world are very rare.