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Exclusive: Path clear for McKellar to return as Wallabies coach despite Leicester job, Cheika's update on future

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29th October, 2023
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If Rugby Australia want Dan McKellar, the door isn’t closed on him returning to replace Eddie Jones.

McKellar, The Roar can reveal, has a clause in his contract that would allow him to coach the Wallabies.

With a British and Irish Lions series less than two years away and a home World Cup only two years further down the road, most Australian coaches would jump at the chance to lead the Wallabies. That includes McKellar.

But the former Brumbies boss, who is less than six months into a three-year deal with Leicester Tigers, won’t play games with RA if they want him as Wallabies coach.

Given McKellar’s recent arrival at Welford Road, the 46-year-old won’t engage in Zoom interviews.

If they want him to replace Jones, who resigned over the weekend following the Wallabies’ worst result at a Rugby World Cup, they will have to pick up the phone.

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If they do, McKellar will come in time for next year’s July Tests.

Unlike Jones’ mad-scientist approach to his World Cup coaching team, McKellar would be able to bring together some of the best rugby minds in the country immediately.

The likes of Dan Palmer, who has joined him at the Tigers, would join. Laurie Fisher would, too.

He would also have the large support of the playing group, with McKellar known as a firm but fair task master.

The culture he helped forge, as well as his willingness to change and develop their playing ethos at the Brumbies over a five-year period, was well respected. That steadfast desire not to deviate from the plan impressed the likes of Peter Hewat.

McKellar also helped bring through most of the playing group at the Brumbies, with young guns like Len Ikitau, Noah Lolesio, Nick Frost and the Lonergan brothers – Lachlan and Ryan – signed and developed by the coach.   

Leicester Tigers' Head Coach Dan McKellar during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby match between Bristol Bears and Leicester Tigers at Ashton Gate on October 13, 2023 in Bristol, England. (Photo by Bob Bradford - CameraSport via Getty Images)

Leicester Tigers’ Head Coach Dan McKellar during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby match between Bristol Bears and Leicester Tigers at Ashton Gate on October 13, 2023 in Bristol, England. (Photo by Bob Bradford – CameraSport via Getty Images)

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The two years he spent as Dave Rennie’s assistant, which included two spring tours up in the northern hemisphere, will have helped further prepare him.

As well as McKellar, his former colleague Stephen Larkham and ex-Wallabies coach Michael Cheika are other options to replace Jones.

Larkham is off contract with the Brumbies at the end of the next Super Rugby season and would be a simple solution to step into his former coach’s shoes at the Wallabies.

He also has some more well-rounded experience under his belt, having spent three seasons with Munster in Ireland after finishing up as Cheika’s assistant at the end of 2018.

Larkham, who coached the Brumbies between 2014 and 2017, returned to his former Super Rugby side last season and led them to the semi-finals.

(Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

Those close to the Brumbies believe Larkham had developed his communication skills during his stint in Ireland.

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Multiple Wallabies have spoken glowingly about his time as an assistant under Cheika, too.

As for Cheika, the 2015 World Rugby coach of the year, who led Los Pumas to this year’s World Cup semi-finals, says he has yet to firm up his plans for next year.

Cheika told The Roar that he will return to Argentina later this year to determine whether he will remain as head coach or hand over the reins to his assistant coach Felipe Contepomi, having taken over from Mario Ledesma last year.

“What I will do now is I’ll have a couple of weeks off and then go to Argentina and debrief,” Cheika told The Roar.

“When we do that, we’ll build a bit of a plan so we can get things that we want to prepare for the next one. Then we’ll have the talk about what’s going on.

“In its essence, we’re obviously grooming Felipe to take that job. It’ll just be a matter of how we see it and is it the time. Whatever decision is made, it will be the best one for the Pumas … my goal is for him to be successful along with the team.”

Asked whether he would be open to a conversation with RA, Cheika, who has also been linked to taking over as the Wests Tigers’ general manager, said his priority remained with his current job.

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“My conversations are with Argentina. That’s where I am,” he said.

“I’ve loved what I’ve done here and what’s happened for me here. I’ve learned a lot and my desire is for them to get better and break into the top tier of rugby because we’re still in that middle tier.”

Michael Cheika, Head Coach of Argentina, reacts prior to the Rugby World Cup France 2023 semi-final match between Argentina and New Zealand at Stade de France on October 20, 2023 in Paris, France. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Cheika, who left in messy circumstances following the 2019 World Cup after falling out with several Australian rugby figures, including then chief executive Raelene Castle, said he never doubted his coaching ability.

“You guys might have thought I was a dud but I didn’t think I was,” he said.

“No one is assessing me more than me. That’s why I found it quite comfortable to be in that heat because no one’s really asked me a question that I wouldn’t have asked myself.

“I’m already asking myself questions about [the third place playoff loss to England] tonight already: ‘What could I have got better, what decisions could have been smarter, how could I have made the prep better, did I get selections right?’

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“If you’re a critic already, it should already make you ready for the rest and that’s really important to me. It’s about being an auto critic and I’ve got that self-awareness.”

Cheika didn’t want to buy in on whether Australian rugby was broken but emphasised the need to have the right people in charge from top to bottom.

“I’m not a person who can talk about that now, I’m a coach of another team,” he said.

“What I will say is the key to any successful business or any successful team is having good people, who treat their people right and have high ambitions and understand and treat them well. The people are the key and usually good people will create a good vibe.”

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