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How Schmidt landed All Blacks icon at Wallabies - and why '80 per cent of coaching is selection'

2nd April, 2024
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2nd April, 2024
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After assisting the All Blacks for 218 Tests, Mike Cron admits it will be “awkward” coaching against his home country but says a desire to help Joe Schmidt saw him jump on board his compatriot’s Wallabies mission.

The veteran coach, who is known affectionately as the “scrum doctor”, was announced on Tuesday as Schmidt’s scrum coach. He’s Schmidt’s second assistant appointment after Laurie Fisher was confirmed as his defence coach last month.

His decision to join came after months of conversations with Schmidt about ditching his retirement plans and eyeing the exciting 18-month window ahead of the Wallabies, which includes next year’s British and Irish Lions campaign.

“Well, Joe, asked really,” said Cron on Tuesday afternoon, when asked how he ended up joining Schmidt’s coaching ticket.

“He rang. Like most things in the rugby, to be honest, in these sorts of positions, it’s done by phone calls and ‘I need a hand’, and it’s not really done quite often by sitting down and doing an interview. I don’t think I’ve ever done an interview.

“It’s just people ring and say, look, ‘I’m in the shit’ or ‘can you help me’ or ‘I need a favour’.

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“Joe, if you know Joe, he’s a pretty progressive workaholic, I suppose would be the word, and driven. Most top coaches are, to be fair, otherwise they don’t get there. So we’re used to working hard and smart. Joe’s certainly one of those guys.

“He needed a hand through to the British and Irish Lions.”

New Wallabies scrum coach Mike Cron (L) joins head coach Joe Schmidt by watching the Melbourne Rebels train on Tuesday. Photo: Afa Polo/Melbourne Rebels

Suffice to say the Wallabies have been “in the shit” after the ugliest year in their history, which culminated in the two-time world champions missing the knockout stage for the first time in their history and dropping to 10th on the World Rugby rankings – an all-time low.

It’s why Cron’s appointment was celebrated because the forwards coach played a pivotal role in turning around the All Blacks’ 24 year World Cup misery by being part of their successful campaigns in 2011 and 2015.

That was done by travelling around New Zealand and teaching the core skills to players from the junior ranks to the national team, so once they arrived at the All Blacks everyone was singing from the same hymn sheet.

Cron didn’t exactly give Australian rugby a flying endorsement by saying the Wallabies could do the same, especially after getting rid of Dave Rennie prematurely, in his opinion, but acknowledged that there were plenty of good people, including players, in the game to help put them on the right track.

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“Well, who knows?” he said.

“It depends on your stock levels. It’s one thing playing super, but it’s certainly a big gap now between super and international.

“I saw that even in New Zealand. It took the All Blacks two or three games to get up to speed, so to speak.

“Because we don’t have the Jaguares and the South Africans now in the Super Rugby competition, I think, to be fair, it’s a wee bit diluted compared to international.

“The gap is bigger now than what it used to be when those guys were in it. So, who knows?

“You can see teams going well at Super, but then you’ve got to get into the ring. Your shadow boxing’s over, now we’ve got to get into the ring of international rugby and then we’ll find out.”

Mike Cron gets a closeup look at All Blacks’ scrum during a training session at Sophia Gardens on November 20, 2008 in Cardiff (Photo by Ross Land/Getty Images)

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One thing Cron is adamant about is the need to select well.

Selection was one of the factors that seemingly hurt the Wallabies in 2023, with Eddie Jones doing away with Australia’s senior players.

Not only was Michael Hooper, the Wallabies’ most capped captain left out, experienced playmakers Quade Cooper and Bernard Foley were also excluded.

It meant not only was Eddie Jones’ squad the youngest at last year’s World Cup, it was also the youngest Wallabies touring party to go to the tournament since 1991.

That decision came back to bite the Wallabies on the game’s biggest stage, as the young side crumbled under pressure against Fiji and Wales.

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Cron admitted there were a “few wild cards on the end of that World Cup team”, but added that coaching was as much about being a good selector as anything else.

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“I actually thought Dave Rennie was doing a good job,” Cron said. “We could see the Wallabies improving.

“Now, sure, your win-to-loss ratio didn’t quite match that, but you could see the boys, every test they’re getting better.

“I thought they were pretty much heading the right way back then.

“What we’ve got to do is ensure that the squad that’s packed, we don’t have much time before we get into the ring that we have to pick smart.

“Eighty per cent of coaching is in selection. That’s the one thing I have learned about professional rugby. Eighty per cent of coaching is in selection.”

Mike Cron says 80 per cent of coaching is in selection. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

While Cron will be judged on the results with the Wallabies, he said two things, in particular, got him on board Schmidt’s team and are paramount to helping turn Australian rugby around.

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“We want to work with the Australian coaches,” he said.

“I’m in the Melbourne Rebels at the moment and you sit down with the coaches and chat. You can pass on anything, you can help them and show them footage of something to help them, that would be great.

“The other thing is to get them [the players] ready for international rugby because Super Rugby is a lot different to coach than international rugby.

“So, when we do leave, it’s got to be left in a really good place where there’s a lot of good young local coaches to step in and hand over the baton.”

Those conversations have already commenced, with Cron sitting down with in-demand Wallabies tight-head prop Taniela Tupou.

They came at a crucial time for the giant prop, with the 27-year-old attracting interest from cashed-up foreign clubs eager to land the experienced Wallaby if he attempts to leave Australian rugby one year early.

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Cron kept his cards close to his chest about Tupou’s untapped potential, but said it was important to get the relationships going.

“We had a meeting with Taniela today, a one-on-one just quietly and chatting to see where he’s at,” Cron said.

“You give them your phone numbers because I’ll be based in Christchurch and commuting.

“You form these relationships, that’s what you do. You generate this brotherhood of we’re all working together for the common cause.”

Cron is the third high-profile All Blacks coach to recently step inside the Wallabies set up, with Steve Hansen joining Jones in France for a few days ahead of the World Cup.

Former All Blacks star Dane Coles was gobsmacked when he first heard that Hansen had stepped inside the Wallabies camp and admitted it “hurt” him.

Cron might have only been half joking when he said it would be “lovely” to have the “two [Bledisloe] weeks off” but added that times had changed.

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“There’s all those obvious issues that you’d never want to coach against the All Blacks, and that’s human nature, I probably couldn’t really understand that 10 years ago, but I think in this modern environment, it’s probably changed a wee bit,” he said.

“We do have a lot of coaches who are everywhere now.

“We’re learning probably from football, where they move around the countries.

“It’s going to be awkward. I think there’s 13 tests. It’d be lovely that I do 11 and then have two weeks off for the All Blacks, but that’s not life.

“It happened to me back in 2003. I helped coach Wales with Steve Hansen in the Aussie World Cup and we played the All Blacks back then. So, it’s happened to me once before, listening to the National Anthem where you just got to listen to it.”

Graham Henry Head coach (R) of the All Blacks with assistant coach Steve Hansen (M) and scrum coach Mike Cron trains during a New Zealand All Blacks training session at Newtown Rugby Park on July 8, 2009 in Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo by Marty Melville/Getty Images)

As for what drinking out of the Bledisloe Cup feels like?

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“The Bledisloe Cup is an outstanding cup to drink from,” Cron said.

“I think it’s about 38 stubbies or something. It’s bloody heavy, and you’ve got to be pretty bloody focused to not get spillage.”

Reminded Australians don’t know what it tastes like, Cron was quick to remind reporters that things can change.

“Well, I remember when I was a young coach for years, we couldn’t get our bloody hands on it, with the [John] Eales penalty and all that, it just about broke poor old Wayne Smith way back. But what goes around comes around,” he said.

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