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The Roar


'I sat there bewildered': High Performance guru on the tricks RA missed - and how they must fix the game

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1st February, 2023
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Australian rugby might be celebrating the return of Eddie Jones as head coach, but the person who set up Ireland’s and Scotland’s high-performance systems believes Rugby Australia must pay urgent attention to the game’s “underbelly” or risk a permanent slide down the international rankings.

“You can only polish the top end of the game so many times. It’s underneath. You’ve got to build the base,” Steve Anderson told The Roar.

“I hear people talk about it a lot in the system, but I think they look at it and they go ‘Oh my god.’”

If you’re wondering who Anderson is, you’re not alone.

Steve Anderson set up high performance programs in Ireland and Scotland, but was barely used in Australia. Photo: RugbyWA

It’s possibly why his return to Australian rugby, where he worked at Rugby Australia in setting up pathways in Western Australia, was viewed with caution and was not tapped like other major unions across the world.

“I can honestly say, no,” Anderson responded when asked whether RA ever tapped into his wider portfolio.

“I represented immediate change. I wasn’t prepared to sit on our hands. Immediate change means restaffing, things like that. That would have scarred people and it would have cost them some money, and I don’t think they were flush with money.


“I used to sit there scratching my head.”

As one eminent person said to Anderson, “They still think you’re a leaguie.”

The former rugby league back moved into coaching and alongside Chris Anderson (no relation) put the wheels in motion for the Melbourne Storm’s remarkable entrance into rugby league that saw the new NRL win the premiership in 1999 and set-up one of Australian sport’s great dynasties.

He was also an assistant coach with the Kangaroos during their World Cup glory in 2000.

The Melbourne Storm celebrating winning the NRL final inn 1999, with Steve Anderson as their assistant coach. Photo: NRL

Not before long the assistant coach headed to the Super League competition in England before Sir Ian McGeechan – a “closet rugby league fan” noticed his work with Leeds and Warrington – asked Anderson to become Scotland’s high-performance manager.

Anderson was mentored by McGeechan – the former British and Irish great turned coach – as a backs and defence coach as well as Jim Telfer, who was Scotland’s director of rugby at the time, but coaching was “never the end” for the Australian.


“If you go back 20 years ago, high-performance wasn’t mentioned in those circles,” he said.

“Financially they were in a lot of trouble.

“The game had gone professional in the mid-90s – and this was 2002-03 – and they were still arguing, the amateurs were still arguing. The parochial club administrator was still arguing of the idea of professionalism.”

It wasn’t long before Ireland came knocking, headhunting the “leaguie” to set up their own system.

“Everything that I do, your scope spans the review and it might take 8-12 months to do that process before you touch anything,” he said.

“That’s where Ireland was good. Scotland, they wanted everything now. But you can’t do change in high performance in a minute, it takes time.

“Ireland were very good and were very patient, and I mapped two World Cup cycles before I left and came home. David’s [Nucifora] done a lot of great over there.

David Nucifora with CJ Stander

David Nucifora, Wallabies coach? (Photo By Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Indeed, when Anderson arrived in Dublin, you could name the sole world class player the Irish had at their disposal: Brian O’Driscoll.

Fifteen years since Anderson put the wheels in motion for their high-performance systems, the likes of Dan Sheehan, Tadhg Furlong, James Ryan, Josh van der Flier, Johnny Sexton and Hugo Keenan would all push for a World XV side.

While Ireland has since gone on to become a major force on the international stage, twice climbing to world No.1 in the past five years. They became the first touring team to beat the All Blacks in a series on New Zealand soil since 1994.

Anderson doesn’t believe that is by accident and says a high-performance system provides “checks and balances”.

“There’s a great lack of understanding of what auditing means. It scares them,” Anderson said.

“In 2006, I released a high-performance plan in Ireland. There was a separate document, an auditing document, to keep the checks and balances and keep your planning fluid, and of course it’s got to remain fluid because the game changes so much.


“The key, and this is where David has been good, he’s been able to continue to reshape the initial planning and challenge exactly what else needs to be done in their environment.

“You can’t just cut and paste. David’s been able to do the auditing program against the planning processes and that keeps your program fluid.

“It’s about checks and balances. If you’re not doing well at pathway level, you’ve got an indicator that you’re going to struggle. By no means is your Wallaby 20s an example and an indicator of how you’re going to perform at Super Rugby or international level, but I’ll tell you what it gives you a great indicator of what talent that can potentially move on to Super Rugby contracts and the international tier.

“But there are many things that you need to do with that individual player to get him up to speed. I think we rush our players, we’re too quick to throw a 20-year-old in there. It’s about giving him three or four years in Super Rugby to find his feet.”

Johnny Sexton, caption of Ireland (C) and the team celebrate during the International Test match between the New Zealand All Blacks and Ireland at Sky Stadium on July 16, 2022 in Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Ireland celebrate after their series win against the All Blacks in July. Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images

Anderson believes Australia’s coaches have been set-up to fail.

“If you’re continually trying to create depth by playing your players in the Test match arena, we’re in big trouble,” he said, pointing to the 51 players Dave Rennie used in 2022 and the dozens of fresh faces over the past three years.


“There’s exceptions to the rule. Ideally, you want them to go through several years of Super Rugby to get that hardness about it and an understanding of what it means to compete week to week.”

While Anderson is encouraged by the recent arrival of Matthew Wilkie, who spent years working alongside Nucifora in Ireland to coach the coaches, Anderson believes rugby in Australia needs a “reboot” and that the governing body should drive home three key pillars.

“The game itself needs a reboot, and I don’t think anyone would argue with that,” he said.

“So if everyone is agreeable that we need a reboot, what does it look like? I come back to performance, pathway and participation.”

Anderson adds that coaching the coach is just as critical as developing players.

“At a community level, it’s growing the game because you need the critical mass to compete,” he said.

“The players need strong competitions. A bigger critical mass gives you a greater opportunity for players to aspire and move through the system. They are the two areas that if I reflect on where are we at, those are the two areas. That talent ID and recruitment, that’s player retention and coach retention and development. It’s not just the player, we’ve got to develop the coach.”


Steve Anderson says not enough work is done to coach coaches in Australian rugby and points to Mick Byrne’s departure from Australian rugby after a decade of success in New Zealand as an example. Photo: Dan Mullan/Getty Images

He pointed to the coaching drain across Australia, where highly respected figures like Mick Byrne who was world-renowned at the All Blacks has been waved goodbye, as an area that needs urgent attention.

“We’re very good at technical and tactical here in Australia, but it’s the broader system of your pathway and your elite development programs in coaching and playing that need to be attended to,” he said.

“I’ve always been very big in high-performance in developing the coach, the individual coach and what areas do they want to specialise in.

“At the moment, if I wanted to be a defensive coach at an elite level, what’s our mentoring program? What are we offering that particular individual? That’s what we’re missing. A lot of it is left up to the individual to pursue his or her development when we should have something framed that supports that journey of that particular person. Not everyone wants to be a head coach.”

Anderson said he was shocked that RA didn’t ask enough questions about how other rugby systems were operating across the world.

“I used to sit there bewildered sometimes,” he said. “Why wouldn’t you ask, what did Ireland do? Hello.


“Mick Byrne. What did the All Blacks do? Mick was on staff with Cheik [Michael Cheika]. He will tell you, he wasn’t asked once how did the All Blacks go about this? Mick went in there 10 years earlier as a skills coach, so he worked through the whole system right up to an assistant coach. But because of personalities in the high-performance area, they fell out with Mick. Next minute Mick’s out doing something else for someone else. More IP walking out the door.”

Rugby Australia’s current $100 million three-year deal is a mere drop in the ocean compared to the AFL’s $4.5 billion deal.

It has led RA to focus on the high-performance tier of the game, with the game’s administrators looking to pump money back into the grassroots of the game over the coming years with a private equity money hit, as well as a cash making Lions series in 2025 and home World Cup in 2027, to give the game another financial hit in the years to come.

Wallabies coach Eddie Jones said at his first press conference back as Wallabies coach that it was essential Australian rugby does not more to nurture the grassroots. Photo: Matt King/Getty Images

But Anderson believes the attitude that existed within the walls of Rugby Australia under previous administrations was a “cop-out” and says the game’s administrators must be more targeted with its limited resources.

“We’re losing ground to the other codes,” he said.

“The AFL has made no secret of it. They’ve poured a ton of money into the game over the last 20 years. Now in Brisbane, there’s AFL posts out at Riverview, near Ipswich – that was league heartland for 100 years.


“I keep coming back to the community. That’s the area we need to invest in. We can say we don’t have the same resources as the AFL, I just think that’s a cop-out. We’ve just got to be more targeted. You’ve got a certain pool of money, but we need to target that money to particular areas, geographically and by discipline.”

Anderson said the first thing he would do would be to “professionalise” the community game at the premier level across the major cities in Australia.

He notes the importance of that because when players are picked for professional franchises, it was vital clubs knew exactly what the professional programs above needed for the players to be able to transfer seamlessly.

“Your premier competitions is where your players go when they’re not picked in Super Rugby, so why don’t we professionalise our premier comps?” he said.

“Now professionalising the game means we need to put a director of rugby, as an example, in each of those clubs.

“If you floated that concept to RA and they pushed it back to the franchises, they’d all say where is the money coming from? Find it. Put an $80,000 DOR in each of your clubs, it comes out of your salary contracts. Rugby league has been doing it for years.

“Most of the clubs have an operation manager, but what we need to do is align our coach development component, which is to get a DOR, whether they’re part paid by the clubs, the member unions, the franchises, as long as they’re following what that Super franchise wants them to do because you want to get that alignment piece going.


“Once you have paid employees there’s no excuse. Every month, you meet with the general manager of footy at the Super franchise and you report back how the coach is going, how are the players going, how are your franchise players performing in your club.”

Steve Anderson believes a director of rugby needs to be paid for at club rugby to allow for the communication and transfer of knowledge to exist between club and professional rugby. Photo: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

Anderson said the fact that RA only had five franchises should make it easier for the game to get aligned, but he stressed that history and tradition, including at school level, needed to make way for a national philosophy.

“If you’re a smaller system, it should be easier to align with the national philosophy. They’ll blame resources, but make it happen,” he said.

“We’ve got to have a long-term approach. It’s disheartening to see we’re ranked eighth in the world. Does that world ranking reflect our current state of the game?

“I just think our talent pool is dwindling, for lots of reasons. Some for money, that’s a reality for all countries. But when you’re already a small playing nation comparatively … I would guess it’s one-tenth of the UK, so we’re punching above our weight in some respects, but so are Ireland. I’ve always said Ireland and Scotland are like us. Comparatively, they’re a smaller talent pool but they’re still competing.

“To me, it comes down to talent ID, recruitment and retention. There’s lot of work to do underneath. That’s why I would target the community game and rebuild from there. Support your coaching, drive philosophy back from a national level and try to stop the drain of coaches and players from going overseas. It can’t all be about money.”