We are not good enough – at least, not by ourselves. This was the implicit acknowledgement behind the recent appointment of New Zealander Dave Rennie as the new Wallabies head coach.
Once before, Australia made the same recognition. Back in 1967, the Welsh Rugby Union had appointed Ray Williams as its first national coaching advisor. Williams told the union’s annual general meeting: “Part of my job will be to convince everyone that coaching is in the best interests of the game.”
Within four years, Welsh rugby had been spectacularly transformed.
The foundations for Wales’ golden era of the 1970s had been set, and the country’s players provided the backbone of the one and only British and Irish Lions side to succeed in New Zealand, in 1971. The coaching of Carwyn James was a decisive influence on the outcome of that series.
In 1974, Australia invited Williams to advise on its own coaching structures. As one Australian official of the time, John Freedman, recalls:
“Our game then lacked any depth and technique. We were way behind. Ray’s visit gave us the lift we needed. Apart from his technical knowledge, he was a very good communicator. Within four or five years we had turned the game round. His unqualified support enabled us to establish a national system.”
It seems events have come full circle, and some of those comments ring just as true now as they did 45 years ago. Australian rugby needs the same kind of lift in 2020 as it did in 1974, and a similar overhaul of its national system is required.
If the success of the Australian under 20s team at the last World Championships provides an important part of the foundation for improvement, the increasing amount of foreign coaching IP probably matters even more at the head of the game.
Three of the four Super Rugby coaches in 2019 were either from New Zealand (Daryl Gibson and Brad Thorn) or from South Africa (Dave Wessels), and Gibson has now been replaced by Canterbury’s Rob Penney. Assistant coaches, like Steve Tandy and Simon Cron at the Waratahs, have also had a significant impact on preparation and philosophy.
In the professional era, the impact of players returning from abroad can be just as important. Nic White’s recall at scrumhalf in gold coincided not just with Australia’s most decisive victory over the All Blacks for many a season, but also with a change to the defensive system, which bore a curious resemblance that of the Exeter Chiefs (White’s club in the UK).
Under Rassie Erasmus, South Africa achieved ‘integration’ just in time for World Cup triumph. Not just the integration of an even racial mix between white players and players of colour, but between home-based players and those plying their trade in Europe.
It was no coincidence that the Springboks’ two best backs – Faf de Klerk and Cheslin Kolbe – played at Sale and Toulouse respectively, or that the recall of 37-year-old Schalk Brits played such an influential role in the forwards.
Erasmus spoke about Brits’ mentoring of starting World Cup hooker Bongi Mbonambi at the end of 2018:
“If you look at Bongi and how he struggled in the Currie Cup final and then, four weeks later, he comes off the bench against France, hits five lineouts and scores the winning try… I think Schalk Brits had a massive role in that.
“Bongi is not a guy who has 50 Test caps. Before a World Cup, to get a guy like him working with a guy like Schalk Brits is great.
“Schalk is not a guy just looking for a position, he is there to help [Mbonambi] with his throwing, his scrumming and European conditions.”
This is why the right-minded adjustment of the ‘Giteau Law’ in 2020 is so vital. Scott Johnson and Dave Rennie have to identify the players they want to bring back from Europe or Japan, and then adapt the law to fit across their judgements. It has to work that way around in order to be functional.
After all, it was introduced in 2015 specifically to accommodate Michael Cheika’s plan to integrate Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell into his World Cup squad. That turned out rather well.
White and James O’Connor are already on their way back to the mother country, O’Connor to play for the Reds and White for the Brumbies, and it was that commitment which allowed them to play at the World Cup despite having accumulated fewer than the 60 caps required for national selection.
Lock Rory Arnold and centre Samu Kerevi became key Wallabies in 2019 and should, all other things being equal, have been automatic selections for years to come.
But things are not equal. Kerevi has taken his 33 caps to Suntory in Japan, and Arnold has transported another 26 to join his brother in Toulouse. There was reputedly a $400,000 disparity in the salaries on offer to Kerevi in Japan and Australia.
So, Australia has either to reduce the cap threshold in order to allow the duo to become eligible for selection in 2020, or attract other players with significant continental experience to fill the gaps.
A few months ago, I examined the transformed credentials of Will Skelton in the second row. The player Rugby Australia should be looking at to replace Kerevi’s power is winger Taqele Naiyaravoro, now playing for the Northampton Saints in England.
Under the tutelage of another Kiwi coach, ex-Hurricane Chris Boyd, Naiyaravoro is enjoying a new lease on life.
“He’s been excellent. Some of the press [is] about how much of an athlete he is and what a big man he is, but what maybe goes unnoticed is the work he’s been doing with (attack coach) Sam Vesty about his decision making around the offload, and his work defensively with (defence coach) Alan Dickens,” Northampton forwards coach Phil Dowson pointed out recently.
“A lot of the cerebral side of the game probably goes unnoticed when you see ‘Big T’, but he’s improved, he’s had a brilliant pre-season, he’s looking well and he’s playing well.”
I took a look at Naiyaravoro’s outstanding contribution to Saints’ win over Wasps exactly one year ago. In that game, ‘Big T’ was a real workhorse in attack, just like Kerevi has been. He carried 17 times for 183 metres, more than the twice the number of carries of the next Saints back. He made seven clean breaks and three offloads, and beat 12 Wasps’ defenders in the process.
An early warning of the looming disparity in sheer power occurred early on, with Naiyaravoro’s fend on Wasps halfback Joe Simpson:
It took Simpson quite a few minutes under a wet sponge to shake that blow off.
Although he is a winger, Northampton use Naiyaravoro in much the same way as Kerevi on first phase from the set-piece. He is an unstoppable force when brought into the play off halfback or flyhalf, from either lineout or scrum:
Naiyaravoro is beating both forwards and backs through the tackle, and delivering two offloads out of three off the deck so that the movement doesn’t die when he’s finally brought to ground.
But he is not just a first phase brute who can carry the load in the heavy traffic in midfield. Give him a sniff in space, and he can be equally potent down the sideline:
This score came straight from a kick-off receipt by Naiyaravoro, returned fully 80 metres for the best try of the game.
‘The Tank’, as Naiyaravoro is also known, also finished off an offload from his old Waratahs cohort Andrew Kellaway midway through the second period:
When he played for the Waratahs, Naiyaravoro’s main problem was a tendency to get lost and never recover on defence. As Dowson suggests, he now appears to be more aware of his own positioning in relation to both the attack and his own defensive colleagues:
In the first example, Naiyaravoro inserts himself into the space in front of the penultimate attacker to make the intercept; in the second his quick push forces a rethink on the pass from Juan de Jongh, enabling him to back off and collect another turnover in the air.
Rugby Australia needs to get creative with the Giteau Law in 2020 in order to make it work for, rather than against, rugby in the country. To exclude the likes of Kerevi and Arnold without any plan to replace them smacks of cutting off your nose to spite your face.
Those two could be the building blocks of the Wallabies going forward to the next World Cup in 2023. Both would only be in their early thirties four years hence, and they could yet provide the solid platform of experience Australia will need then.
The Wallabies must be able to build and sustain combinations in order to succeed, and players with (potentially) 70+ caps, in all departments of the team, are the bedrock of that success.
So, the rule has to change to suit the needs of Dave Rennie and Scott Johnson, and the individuals they want to build the team around – whether they play in Australia or Europe or Japan. As the examples of Nic White and James O’Connor have shown, expressing interest in overseas players with fewer than 60 caps actually encourages them to return home on a Super Rugby contract.
The same interest should be expressed in Will Skelton and Taqele Naiyaravoro, especially if a deal cannot be done with Arnold and Kerevi. Both are now far better players than when they left the Waratahs.
There has to be a genuine desire to integrate foreign rugby IP into the Australian game, whether it is through coaching or the return of top players who have expanded their rugby education in Europe.
Just as it was in the early 1970s, so it is again now. Progress comes from a bold desire to reach out to foreign influence and embrace it, not to batten down the hatches and pretend that everything will be alright on the night.