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Dan McKellar should remember how Stephen Larkham was shafted

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Expert
8th March, 2020
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Rugby Australia, through its director of rugby Scott Johnson and Wallabies head coach Dave Rennie, has asked Dan McKellar to become the Wallabies forward coach.

Georgina Robinson, writing in The Sydney Morning Herald, canvassed a number of former Test and provincial coaches and they told her that McKellar should take up the offer.

There were, she wrote, three main reasons the experts put forward why McKellar should accept the job.

1. McKellar would become a better coach under the learning environment that Rennie would create for him.

2. The plan to develop McKellar as Rennie’s successor could be fast-forwarded, along the same lines as the apprenticeship of the new All Blacks coach Ian Foster under the head coach Steve Hansen.

3. Coaching the Wallabies is the zenith for an Australian Super Rugby coach like McKellar. Robinson quotes a former coach as saying: “When your country calls. No choice.”

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Just as all battle plans rarely survive the first assault, these three reasons all seem to me to be pie in the sky.

They take no account of what actually happened only a few years ago when a Brumbies coach (like McKellar) was offered a coaching role with the Wallabies, with the virtual promise that he would take over as head coach when the incumbent retired.

I am referring, of course, to the case of Stephen Larkham and Michael Cheika and how Rugby Australia dumped Larkham and retained Cheika when everything went wrong for the Wallabies.

In passing, I am amazed that with all the media coverage of the Rugby Australia offer to Dan McKellar there was no mention of the Larkham fiasco.

But it is central to understanding the nature of the offer to McKellar, and why he should reject it.

Munster coach Stephen Larkham

Stephen Larkham has moved on to Munster. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

What happens if McKellar joins the Wallabies coaching staff and the team has two years of very little success and there are calls from the rugby media and public for the New Zealander Rennie to be sacked?

Does anyone think that Rugby Australia will sack Rennie and further deplete its virtual non-existent funds to pay out Rennie?

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We know what will happen. McKellar would be dumped from the Wallabies and Rennie and Johnson would be kept on, in just the same game plan that saw Larkham dumped and Cheika retained.

The best thing for Australian rugby and for the development of Dan McKellar into an outstanding coach of the Wallabies is for him to continue with the Brumbies.

In this scenario, McKellar will learn how to be a successful head coach from experience, hands-on, rather than through osmosis.

Also, Dan McKellar’s style and what works for him as a head coach may not be the same as that of Dave Rennie. This was the problem that Larkham had with Cheika.

The point, too, as Bret Harris notes in The Guardian is that McKellar needs more experience as a head coach, not as a side-kick: “He has not achieved anything yet, but if he has the potential to turn the Brumbies into Super Rugby title contenders he should be encouraged to do so rather than be poached as soon as the team enjoys a glimmer of success.”

Dan McKellar

(Photo by Kerry Marshall/Getty Images)

Right now, after six rounds of the 2020 Super Rugby tournament, the Brumbies are well placed to be the top Australian side in the finals with four wins in five matches.

A highlight of this season was the defeat of the Chiefs in Hamilton in a performance that brought back memories of the glory days of the Brumbies.

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A sign that the Brumbies are a well-coached side and the best Australian hope for some years of going deep into finals is that in virtually every position, including the reserves, the players are playing the best rugby of their lives.

An example of this was the performance of the reserve halfback Ryan Lonergan, who banged over kicks from everywhere, including the sidelines, to successfully convert five attempts from five into points against the hapless Sunwolves.

The Rebels have won three of their six matches but remain a side that disappoints more than they inspire any hopes of making the finals.

The Reds have a seemingly appalling record of winning only one of their six matches this season. But they look like a much better side than the Rebels and a more likely side to do well in the finals, if they can actually make them, which is extremely doubtful.

Liam Wright of the Reds

(Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images)

Something is just not clicking with the Reds, a side that is full of exciting young players, some of whom could easily graduate to the Wallabies in their first season of Super Rugby.

The side needs some of the control in the halves that great Queensland teams in the past had to convert brilliant play, as the side demonstrated against the Crusaders on Friday night, into winning play.

A goal-kicker of Ryan Lonergan’s ability would be helpful, too, for the Reds.

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We come now to the woeful Waratahs. Their record is actually slightly better than that of the Reds right now, with one win in five matches. But this side is an embarrassment for Australian rugby.

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At the weekend, the Waratahs led the Chiefs 14-13 at half time at WIN Stadium. LOSE Stadium might have been a better description of the ground as the Waratahs conceded 38 points in the second half, and scored no points themselves.

When Rugby Australia cut their Super Rugby teams from five to four we were told that that this would strengthen the remaining sides.

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This has not happened.

Moreover, the two former powerhouses of Australian rugby, Queensland and NSW, have teams that have won a grand total of two of their combined 11 matches.

The Reds, at least, are presenting a group of young players, forwards and backs, who look like being long-term and successful Wallabies.

There is only one player in the Waratahs squad, Michael Hooper, who has any real claims to a place in the Wallabies squad. And given the quality of the loose forward talent being produced by the Reds and the Brumbies, Hooper’s time as a Wallaby will be up before his contract with Rugby Australia runs out.

Michael Hooper

(Photo by David Ramos – World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

Instead of trying to poach Dan McKellar for the Wallabies, Rugby Australia would be better advised to create an intervention into the collapse of the Waratahs.

The franchise that has developed the most Wallabies has degenerated, to the great detriment of Australian rugby, into what Paul Cully described in The Sun-Herald as a team letting down the Australian side down.

This is the real problem in our rugby, with its real implications for the future success of the Wallabies, that needs addressing.

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Rugby Australia needs to investigate how the current Waratahs coaching staff was put in place.

Why wasn’t an Australian appointed as head coach?

What criteria was involved with the selection of the specialist coaches?

And what were the connections between businesses that manage officials, coaches and players and the coaches selected to run the Waratahs squad?