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New chair says Aussie rugby must end 'sugar hit' approach, 'fears' for game's future if reform doesn't occur quickly

20th November, 2023
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20th November, 2023
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Five years ago, Daniel Herbert called on Australian rugby to look beyond the “individual” of blaming a head coach and encouraged the game’s administrators to look at fixing the “systemic” issues within the “system” holding back the code.

Now, having been catapulted into the role as Rugby Australia chairman after a dramatic weekend that saw Hamish McLennan ousted from the role, he intends to fix the system so that the code can once again flourish.

To begin with, Herbert, who joined the RA board in 2020, reiterated chief executive Phil Waugh’s comments from a week ago that the governing body would appoint their new director of high-performance of rugby before filling the Wallabies head coaching role.

“The next couple of months is important putting the foundations in. We keep looking for a sugar hit, it’s just not coming,” Herbert said.

“We need to put the foundations in, we need to get the right people in and then we need to get the unity.

“We haven’t gone to market for the Wallaby coach and we won’t until we place the high performance director.

“I’ve been trying to get the message across that changing a coach doesn’t fix what’s going on right now. I know it makes people feel better if we’ve got a certain coach in place for a period of time, but eventually the scoreboard comes into play. And that’s when you get found out.

“We can’t take a short-term focus and we have to put the foundations in place and that starts with a good high-performance director that can come in and then run the process to find the coach, and make sure that we find the right fit for our playing group and the right person who can address some of the team’s shortcomings of late.”

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Daniel Herbert came from the clouds to be appointed Rugby Australia chairman on Sunday night. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images for Rugby Australia)

Scott Johnson previously served as the RA director of rugby until the end of 2021, but his appointment ahead of the 2019 World Cup campaign had more to do with keeping a watch on then Wallabies coach Michael Cheika rather than implementing structural change.

He was replaced by high-performance expert Peter Conde, who was put into the role by former CEO Andy Marinos, but lasted less than 12 months.

RA is hoping to appoint the new director of high-performance by early December, with Harlequins DOR Billy Millard and World Rugby director of high-performance Peter Horne two possible candidates.

Herbert came from nowhere to be appointed chairman late on Sunday evening.

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After 48 hours of emergency meetings following a request from six member unions for McLennan to stand down, Herbert emerged as the replacement chair on Sunday night.

With the exception of McLennan, who resigned after he was ousted following three years in the role, he was elected to the role by the entire board unanimously.

“My fellow directors put me forward and I accepted,” said Herbert in his first interview since being appointed to the role.

Asked whether the states and territories had “too much power within Australian rugby”, Herbert said RA merely served the game.

“Oh, no, because it’s their game, it’s the community game,” Herbert said after a long pause.

“When I look at actually what’s the success measure for a sport, it’s how many kids and adults are playing the game.

“So, when you look at that, we don’t own rugby. RA doesn’t own rugby. It’s owned by the community and even the Super clubs, they’re owned by their community clubs.”

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Queensland Rugby Union chairman Brett Clark, who phoned McLennan to tell him that he had lost the support of the majority of his stakeholders in what was a “difficult conversation”, welcomed the appointment but denied the move was intended to be a Queensland takeover.

“I think from an optics perspective, I can get the question. But hand on heart, I can honestly say that I was totally shocked when I got the call on Sunday night saying that Dan Herbert was now the chair. I had no idea Dan was even in consideration, let alone would put his hand up,” Clark said.

Hamish McLennan resigned from the Rugby Australia board after being removed as chair. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

While the Wallabies’ terrible year was a factor in the member unions losing confidence in McLennan, who led the charge to bring back Eddie Jones as head coach, Clark said it had been building for 12-18 months and the former chair’s lack of “humility” in public had done him no favours.

Herbert acknowledged he was on the board and rugby committee when Jones was appointed to replace Dave Rennie.

“The decision was made and it was made with all the board’s support,” he said. “But it was something that was deeply considered at the time.”

He also said said the signing of Joseph Suaalii was driven by McLennan, but added that under his leadership RA would look inwards.

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It’s understood Herbert favoured Jones returning to the role in 2024 and questioned the worth of luring Suaalii from the NRL on a mega multimillion dollar deal.

Herbert now has the difficult task of succeeding where many, including McLennan, have not.

The 1999 World Cup winner said McLennan deserved credit for steering the game through the Covid crisis and putting the pillars in place to usher through high-performance alignment measures.

Herbert, who worked as a general manager for the Queensland Reds last decade, said it was vital that RA listen to its stakeholders but push ahead with their reform measures.

“He [McLennan] led us through Covid and has been fundamental about the changes required and that’s not going to change with me and the directors, we are steadfast on that,” Herbert said.

“We feel that moving forward the game requires everyone to unite. We felt that would only be achieved with a change of chair.”

“I think everyone recognises that, particularly in the high-performance aspect of the game, it’s not working and it hasn’t been working for 15 or 20 years. So there is no change in direction for that, we need to reform it, it’s not working and it hasn’t been working, and we need to get out of the mentality that a coach can fix it – we need to fix the inputs.”

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The Wallabies react following their final World Cup match, which ended in the pool stage. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

One of the criticisms of McLennan was his bulldozer style, particularly with regards to trying to implement RA’s alignment plan which includes centralising the high-performance and the commercial departments.

Herbert, who said he wouldn’t be pushing for constitutional change any time soon, added that his experience of being on the other side of the fence would help his leadership.

“Certainly this group of stakeholders felt that they weren’t being heard and they didn’t like the direction they were being taken in or the style,” Herbert said.

“That’s all been listened to and part of my role will be getting out and listening to all of their concerns and making sure that we have plans in place to realise its potential.

“I’m not going to talk about Hamish per se but, working on the other side at times, you just want to make sure that you’re not dictated to.

“If you’ve got skin in the game, you want to make sure that people are listening to you because a lot of our good talent, not just playing talent, is in our clubs.”

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Asked what he was excited about in coming into the role, Herbert said the ability to change the status quo drew him to apply to go onto the board. But equally, he added it was vital RA don’t waste the chance given the prized showpiece events on the horizon.

“It wasn’t something I coveted, I tell you that, I was quite happy in the background.

“I guess the faith the other directors put in me to do it got me over the line.

“But there’s a lot opportunity, we’ve talked a lot about the golden decade and the opportunities coming down the pipeline, my excitement is the opportunity, my fear is that we don’t move quickly enough. Because it’s not a switch that you flick, it takes a bit of time and we’ve got to start soon.”

Newly appointed Rugby Australia Chair Daniel Herbert says he fears for the game if they don’t act quickly. (Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)

Ensuring RA get a significant uplift on their broadcast deal from $29 million per year is of huge importance.

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Herbert said Waugh had been “active with the broadcasters”, but added they would seek external advice, possibly from new candidates on the board, if necessary.

He added that increasing participation numbers in women’s rugby was important, but acknowledged the difficulties of having many mouths to feed.

“Huge potential particularly around the participation side, if you look at where the growth is occurring over the last couple of years it’s in that space, young girls,” he said.

“So we see it as a huge opportunity and rugby was traditionally a bit skewed male-female, worse than league and AFL – AFL many years ago, I looked at the data, was doing a much better job.

“From the participation side – and I go back to my earlier comments that that is the true measure of success is how you’re going there – our previous board went hard at the Sevens and I think that was successful, and we’ve now got a really strong-performing women’s team.

“That at the time was the focus, men’s XVs and women’s Sevens. And I think now we have to be a bit broader than that.

“That’s difficult because you’ve got to try to find the money to fund it, because it’s not a commercial vehicle that can fund itself yet. So there’s going to have to be some investment in it, which is tough when, it’s been well documented, our financial position is not at its best.

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“So we need to make sure we continue to invest and grow it, with the Wallaroos we’ve got a really good opportunity, they performed really well in that WXV tournament recently, so you can see there the opportunity to get some really good improvement.

“Because high performance is not about gold plating, it’s not about how much money you spend, you certainly need investment and resources, but there are far greater things like integration and alignment, the cohesion, that’s far greater than the investment. But we need to find some more investment and resourcing to accelerate that team as they go forward because that will inspire young girls to want to play the game.”

He also denied RA had become a ‘boys club’ despite his former Wallaby teammates Waugh (CEO), Joe Roff (RA president) and Justin Harrison (RUPA) being so involved in the operations of the game.

Rugby Australia’s board and stakeholders are filled by the Wallabies class of the early 2000s. Photo Credit: Nick Wilson/ALLSPORT

“My interest in joining the RA board was when I was asked to join was ‘well high performance needs to be reformed,’ so if you feel you can add value, and I think everyone feels they can add value in their roles, then that’s why they do it,” he said. 

“In terms of the boys club? Look, that’s up to you, I can’t say that. But I could certainly tell you my point of view that some of these guys that we played with we’re not hanging out together. I haven’t seen a lot of these guys for a long, long time before joining this board.

“There is a camaraderie from when you play together but we’ve all gone on with their lives and done different things and we live in different parts of the country. I think it’s good to have people who want to give back to the game afterwards.”

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