The Roar
The Roar



Why Jim McKay is the best attack coach in Australian rugby

Autoplay in... 6 (Cancel)
Up Next No more videos! Playlist is empty -
23rd February, 2021
4228 Reads

Wallabies attack coach Scott Wisemantel might argue this point, but Reds counterpart Jim McKay can sit back and smile, knowing he already has the pelts on his pony.

McKay is probably the best offensive mind in Australian rugby. He has the track record, beginning with stints in the north of England (Orrell and Rotherham) and in the west – the toe end of Cornwall, at Redruth and with Cornish Pirates.

He was a playing contemporary of the Ella brothers and David Campese at Randwick, but a holiday to the UK in his early 20s turned into a much longer rugby coaching sojourn. It is a time he remembers with great affection.

“I’ve still got my house in Newquay and I’ll be going there to get my surfboard out when this tour is over,” McKay told the Independent in 2013.

“It overlooks the beach, there’s the seagulls squeaking away, Cornish pasties, all that sort of stuff.”

He stayed in England for 15 years before returning home to coach the Queensland attack under Ewen McKenzie in 2009. The Reds duly won the Super Rugby title two years later, and McKay was appointed to Link’s staff when the latter became Wallabies head coach in 2013.

His coaching career had run in parallel with that of a young Cumbrian, Stuart Lancaster, in the English Championship. McKay coached the Pirates against Lancaster’s Leeds Carnegie club, and they fought out an honourable draw over three matches – one win apiece, with one tie.

Have a question about what’s happening on the rugby field? Nick Bishop will be starting a second weekly column this Friday where he answers your questions, so be sure to ask them in the comments section below.

In 2013, the two men found themselves on opposite sides of a higher-profile national fence, with Lancaster then the head coach of England. Both had a healthy regard for each other’s abilities.


“Stuart used to come down and stay with me and we talked about rugby. I’ve got a healthy respect for him and I think very fondly about my time in England. Whenever I speak to Stuart, he says, ‘you should write a book one day Jim’, because it shows all the coaches in England that there’s a pathway,” McKay told the Independent.

During the McKenzie-McKay era, I can vouch that England found Australia’s the most difficult attack to counter – along with the All Blacks of course.

McKay was reappointed as the Queensland attack coach in 2018, and it has turned out to be the most critical coaching intervention staged in the Brad Thorn era.

The story of that reappointment was vividly retold by Rod Kafer last year, who was on the interview panel. Originally, McKay was in competition for the job with Wisemantel, who subsequently ruled himself out of the running by taking up a role with Eddie Jones’ England prior to the 2019 World Cup.

The interview process was a fresh experience for Kafer.

“[Jim] came into the room and advised that he would need 15 minutes to set up, somewhat unorthodox for an interview, however the group consented. Jim then set up his video; a series of butcher’s paper with key themes, images, diagrams and words that he sticky-taped to the wall around the room; and the piece de resistance from within an old school map case, a rolled-up felt rugby pitch with numbered 1-15 rugby figurines – one side in Maroon, of course, and the opposition – which he spread over the board-room table in the Brisbane corporate offices of some rugby friends at MOQ Digital. This was a sight to see.

“He talked about his previous period at the Reds, his pride in the team and the state when they won the title in 2011, and the lead-up and the struggles they had in Brisbane at the time.

“He spoke about his passion and the links to his family and memories the Reds had provided for him, his beseeching infectious; he talked about the meanings of his strategies outlined on the butcher’s paper around the room; then in a great finale, invited all in the room, with some 200 Test match caps between us, to come on a journey with him as he wove his way around the felt rugby pitch to display how his team was going to attack. First pod here; blind winger here; halfback there – looking at options – fullback here, trailing this player and then moving here… Talk about a tactile interview!

“He demonstrated his plans, he debated the merits under questioning, and had to wrestle back the figurines from his interviewers when they were moved out of line.”

The translation from butcher’s paper ideas on a wall, to figures moving around the green baize, to real-life players understanding and enacting them on a grassy field is never straightforward – but McKay demonstrated just how well his charges are responding to his prompts in the opening game of Super Rugby Australia 2021 against the old enemy, the Waratahs.

The Reds celebrate a try

Filipo Daugunu. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)


He started by showing the independence of his own thinking in selection. Where the Wallabies are considering developing Hunter Paisami as a triple-threat number 12, McKay kept him at number 13 outside Hamish Stewart. Jordan Petaia was shunted out to the right wing, even though he is established as the Wallabies’ outside centre under Dave Rennie.

The Reds’ attacking lineouts were a masterclass in staying one step ahead of the opposition, from the beginning to the very end:

McKay had probably noticed the vulnerabilities in the Waratahs’ 2020 short-side defence from the lineout.

The Reds’ first move is to establish a short-side from a five-man lineout, with their back-rowers, Harry Wilson and Fraser McReight, out in midfield alongside Stewart. This formation became their bread and butter throughout the match:

reds attack vs waratahs

The other key attacker is the blindside wing (here, Petaia in the yellow circle) and the performances of these four actors is key in the following drama.

Wilson starts by stepping inside the first tackle to create the required short-side on the initial phase. The idea is to attract the main short-side defender (number 9 Jake Gordon) towards the back of the first ruck and away from the sideline:


reds attack vs waratahs

Wilson’s partners in crime, McReight and Stewart, clean out over the top of the tackle, while James O’Connor and Petaia take a few steps over to the wide side of the field to encourage Gordon to follow their movement.

In fact, it is all part of a plan to strip down the short-side defence:

reds attack vs waratahs

A three-man forward pod reinforces the ruse that play will continue towards the middle of the field, but O’Connor and Petaia are already heading back towards the original touchline as Tate McDermott swings the ball across his body from the base.

NSW are not in their ideal defensive shape on that side. They are down on numbers and Gordon is defending in between two forwards – Angus Bell inside, Will Harris outside:

The trick for a top attack coach is to get the opponent reacting to what he did last time, then come up with a new wrinkle:


So, what has changed? The unholy trinity of Wilson, McReight and Stewart are still set up in midfield, with the blindside wing (number 11 Filipo Daugunu) following them further infield than Petaia in the first example:

reds attack vs waratahs

Perhaps conscious of Wilson’s previous first step, the midfield defence is set up to stop the move back inside by the Reds’ number eight – and that opens up the short pass to Stewart.

Stewart makes good metres and only McReight is needed to service the first breakdown – Wilson can pick up the ball and peel off more yardage up the guts. By the time he is finally tackled, Gordon has taken up position behind the ruck, which means that Daugunu can now come back into play on the short-side, with a nice mismatch against Harris:

Track Gordon’s movements across the whole sequence, and it is easy to see how uneconomical they have become. Gordon runs to the boot of the first ruck, then runs back to the short-side to tackle Daugunu, finally getting up off the ground to hit Wilson on the next phase near the goal-line! That is not efficient defence.

On the next occasion the Reds used the same attacking shape from lineout, the Waratahs backfield was already cheating back towards the blindside to give their scrumhalf some much-needed help:


reds attack vs waratahs

With Gordon in behind the ruck, both backfield defenders, Jack Maddocks and Will Harrison, are tracking across the field towards the short-side threat of Daugunu.

This movement leaves the wide side of the field threadbare on the next phase:

Look how intelligently the other three key attackers have regrouped to exploit the new space: Wilson is providing an important screen in midfield, McReight has worked his way all the way out to the far 15-metre line, and Stewart makes the break.

The coup de grace occurred in the second period. The Reds went back to the first attacking lineout of the game, but with some significant new wrinkles:

There is the same step back inside by the first-wave ball-carrier, but this time the blindside winger, Daugunu, is servicing the ruck, so play cannot be coming back to the short-side, surely?

Oh yes it can:

O’Connor repeats the same switch move across the back of the ruck, but he has a new idea in mind:

reds attack vs waratahs

With this kind of flat alignment, there will be no passing play. It will be a kick through all the way – and with a dollop of good fortune, it succeeds again. But there was no luck attached to McKay’s lineout attack in the planning. He manipulated the NSW defence in just the way he had anticipated.

All those Subbuteo figurines shifted back and forth on the green felt, and the butcher’s paper plastered along the walls, may seem old school. But it is exactly this kind of coaching grit from which the pearl of Australian rugby will grow once again.

Jim McKay may never have been the head coach of a high-profile professional rugby team in either hemisphere, but what he does matters. It is his loyalty to his home club and his desire to communicate a knowledge of the game earned globally to anyone willing to listen which creates inspiration.

Rod Kafer and the Reds’ interview panel found themselves to be less the cold evaluators of one candidate among many, but the enthused participants in a story McKay wanted to tell. Clearly, he has the same effect on the Queensland players. They want to enact the attacking narratives he creates on the wall, on the green grass of a real field.

Sports opinion delivered daily 


Scott Wisemantel may be directing the Wallaby attack, but the likes of McKay are the glue that hold the game together underneath that uppermost level. People who have learnt their craft in a number of different environments and then returned home with their jewels of knowledge are living the real odysseys of the post-COVID sporting world.

Nick Bishop is starting a second weekly column on The Roar this Friday, where he’ll be answering your rugby questions in his usual analytical style. So get your questions in via the comments section below, and we’ll pick out two or three for him to answer each week.