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RA must not fixate on an Aussie coach - why Ronan O'Gara is best choice to lead Wallabies after the Eddie calamity

29th November, 2023
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29th November, 2023
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In 2022 I opined the “worst decision Rugby Australia could make for the Wallabies in 2023 would be to hire Eddie Jones as their headman.” This was not breathless baiting.

My rationale was stated: “As he grows into the role, pet projects will eclipse methodology, assistants will run for the exits, some players will be vaccinated from selection and others will be immune from the drop, the press will be either domesticated or ostracised, and interminable excuses will grow like beets in the Lockyer Valley – ‘We’re building for 2027, mate’.”

The key planks in my platform to avoid Eddie-fication were: (a) he was no longer good at cultivating tight forwards of world class; (b) his teams did not manage referees well; (c) he had become a grumpy media-badger; (d) inexact learnings from defeat (a tendency to double down); (e) an inability or unwillingness to build redundancy or take on critique; (f) his tendency in selection to base too much on favouritism and flattery; (g) he capped droves of English players but stuck with the same few; (h) he ran off assistants who chafed under his regime; (i) he has a penalty-rich style; and (j) he builds too much of the show around himself.

Wallabies head coach Eddie Jones speaks to the media during a Rugby Australia press conference at Coogee Oval on October 17, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

 (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

Nevertheless, outdated metrics and aged feats taken out of context were followed to hire him, with disastrous and predictable results. Just as in England, a powerful and kindred patron was almost successful in protecting Jones from the axe, until he was not, but not before poisoning the realm with divisive tactics.

As Rugby Australia searches for a new Wallabies coach, as well as a Director of Rugby, they would be well-served to focus more on the voices of reason who saw the Eddie and Hamish Show for what it was, rather than what they wished it could be.

The matrix for who the tandem of rugby leadership should be must be based on thinkers like Ben Darwin, who focuses on long-term cohesion in his studies. A useful template could be based on what I wrote should be avoided; in opposite:

  • A headman whom assistants clamour to follow and stick with
  • Media- and referee-friendly
  • Demonstrated excellence in building two and then three deep packs of quality
  • A low penalty philosophy
  • Character which embraces hard lessons from defeat and makes changes on time
  • Treasurer of talent; not a churner
  • Thick-skinned yet perceptive
  • Humble enough to make himself successive and redundant
  • Makes players better (Jones likely only coached Freddie Steward and Courtney Lawes to improve in the England squad).
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It is a good gig: Wallaby head coach. Any confident coach loves to take on a team at its nadir or near it, with a Lions tour just around the corner, playing against three of the World Cup semi-finalists each year and the two finalists to boot, the core of excellent Fiji playing weekly in Super Rugby Pacific, a home World Cup in the first cycle, and (if the Giteau Law is adapted to reality) plenty of talent in the backline and loose forward ranks to be in the top five by end of 2024.

The expanded draw makes it highly unlikely Australia fails to play a home quarterfinal, and at home, they are hard to knock out. This narrative is easy to picture for a coach and his family contemplating the move.

All that remains to win and win consistently by 2025, defeat the Lions, and make at least a semifinal in 2027 is depth of quality and clarity of purpose in the tight five. Simpler said than done, and yet, imminently doable.

Some will say the Wallabies can only win again when more SRP clubs win more, but the truth is more complex.
The scenes in South Africa after the back-to-back Cup clearly prophecy thousands more Kolbe and Kolisi wannabes choosing rugby over soccer, and a golden decade of wider talent pool in the 2030s.

Ireland’s Test team is built on Leinster with a little help from friends. Dublin is a rugby rich city. Australia cannot replicate that, no matter how Sydney tries. But the success of Ireland in international rugby (Grand Slam, top rank, and an All Black series) made rugby one of the most popular stories, teams, and beliefs in Irish sporting history. Rory McIlroy could not wait to join his brand to the IRFU’s. The effect on schools in and outside of Dublin, Cork, and Galway, and in Ulster has been profound.

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Winning is intoxicating.

Excuses around money, local competition, and grassroots begone. Wales is even more bankrupt, Fiji’s entire Cup budget was dwarfed by Eddie’s shrink bill, Argentina’s players zoom with each other more than they see each other, and the back-to-back champion is scattered to the far corners of the earth.

Australia has a sporting business climate superior to almost any other key rugby nation except France, a deeply embedded rugby culture, and the upcoming marquee events all others crave.

Thus, the gloom should be exiled. Candidates will stand up.

But instead of lapsing into the same old flawed technique of “choosing best available” which tends to limit thought and hunting lists to the familiar veteran coaches, RA should own their own domain, define the traits they want, and be brave in selection. Who dares, wins.

The Wallabies need a likable, vigorous, rigorous and humble leader who knows how to build a team of coaches around him, and accepts nothing less than a hard squad who play at a modern body height, can show his team why they lost and how they can win, understand trends in more than a monolithic manner, finds Australian rugby ingenuity again, and is honest.

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The first casualty of the process should be the insistence on one nationality of hire. Why would Paul O’Connell or Jacques Nienaber stop being able to coach a lineout or a rush defence, respectively, just by hitting Australian shores?

Springboks head coach Jacques Nienaber looks on

(Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)

Surely attack guru Mike Catt, a South African-Englishman who coaches in Ireland, could navigate the cultural divide; and starter play expert Joe Schmidt could probably decipher the cross-ditch code.

If Randwick’s fiery Michael Cheika can take Argentina to the semis without a scrum or Kiwi Warren Gatland led Wales to smash Jones’ plans to bits with an old playmaker half as fit as Quade Cooper, there is no proof young Australian players would reject a foreigner leading them, and there is a case to be made that it would mitigate state rivalries.

Nevertheless, no-nonsense Aussie rugby men are right in front of our eyes who meet the criteria listed: Dan McKellar and Laurie Fisher come to mind. At club level, they built the kind of rugged system and depth that is needed.

If anything, McKellar’s experience in scouting and leading Leicester for a season is a plus to his skillset. Fisher was right about just every critique and effort he made in 2023. Both are the kind of straight-talking Aussie who the media and players enjoy; their teams are referee-savvy and know the laws.

Obstacles in contract have not stopped RA before, and funds have been found for vanity projects galore; wings who’ve never played a Test get paid.

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If you have a McKellar-Fisher duo at the head, the ability to land proper Union specialists on breakdown, red zone, kicking, and counter rises exponentially: not just a Larkham but a Catt who has built some of the best schemes with ball in hand ever.

Assistant coach Laurie Fisher during an Australia Wallabies training session at Sanctuary Cove on August 23, 2022 in Gold Coast, Australia. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Assistant coach Laurie Fisher during an Australia Wallabies training session at Sanctuary Cove on August 23, 2022 in Gold Coast, Australia. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

If the big Brumby brain trust is unavailable or resistant to strong Wallaby offers, there are other coaches who tick many of the boxes: who better than Wayne Smith to oversee the show as a Rassie Erasmus-type Director of Rugby who coaches when it matters, along with Catt to direct the Wallaby attack?

Smith has a soft touch and loves a challenge.

Catt has relocated his family to England, ahead of what is likely a (foolish) introduction of Johnny Sexton into the coaching setup at Ireland in 2024. Catt has devised attack patterns which baffle even Shaun Edwards.

But if a 2027-ending contract with La Rochelle can be overdone, it is Ronan O’Gara, the Razor-sharp disciple of the Wallabies’ Bledisloe nemesis, along with forwards expert Donnacha Ryan (Ryan v Ryan) who could complete a brain trust.

Is he likable? At times. Mostly. Crucially, he works media well, and his players adore him. His team has forward power, but wins the penalty margin.

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Smith-O’Gara-Ryan-Catt-Fisher (and/or McKellar) would be a dream.

RA will not land all of them, but using these archetypes would inform the search.

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