Connolly: Australia needed to hit rock bottom

Super Rugby
John Connolly Profile
by John Connolly

We’ve just come off the worst round of Super Rugby for Australia in over a decade, but strangely enough, that might not be such a bad thing for the game.

Sometimes it takes a disaster to occur before you truly look at things and start the process of change. In the case of Australian Rugby, I hope this rings true and the current situation rams home the need for change in the minds of those who are trusted to run the game.

The Brumbies took a big win over the Hurricanes. Photo: Getty ImagesAs it stands heading in to the final round of Super Rugby, only one Australian side can make the finals, although that team – it will most likely be the Brumbies – will have accumulated only enough competition points to justify a ninth-place finish on the ladder.

The conference structure has saved Australian Rugby from extreme embarrassment, with all five teams likely to finish in the bottom half of the ‘true’ Super Rugby ladder, based on competition points alone.

Our biggest issue is depth. While the Wallabies can and will field a very good Test side come The Rugby Championship next month, our talent is stretched to breaking point across the five Super Rugby teams.

The Force and the Rebels are the most affected by this shortfall in talent, as was highlighted in particular by the injury-depleted Rebels’ thrashing at the hands of the Crusaders last weekend.

We must assess now, ahead of the next broadcast agreement, as to whether we can continue to field five Super Rugby teams in Australia.

Kyle Godwin is being closely monitored by the Force. Photo: Getty ImagesOne option which could be considered is to ungroup the Western Force form the Australian conference and put them in with South Africa. The back and forth travel regime kills the Force and they already have a strong recruiting focus across in the Republic. The decision to part ways with Michael Foley is a travesty and the players are beginning to vote with their feet, as we read reports that WA product Kyle Godwin is off to the Brumbies next year.

The other major concern is in our coaching ranks, the most pressing issue being who will fill the vacancies at the Reds and Force.

In Queensland the best credentialed coach for the role is interim Coach Matt O’Connor, in my view, but if they pick on personality he may not get the job. I have been told that four of the seven candidates for the Queensland job were overseas-based Coaches and in my opinion we shouldn’t accept another foreign coach in Australian Rugby.

Matt O'Connor is focused on the Reds. Photo: Getty ImagesBased on 25 years of experience, I personally don’t feel our Australian Coaches are any worse than any of the foreign coaches on the market. What concerns me greatly is that not one person on the panel charged with selecting the next Queensland Coach has any first class coaching experience, so who knows which they will go.

We must continue to develop our home-grown Coaches to get Australian Rugby back to what it was.

Australian Coaches have a long history of being world leaders that were aspired to. Alan Jones changed the game with his “no mistake drills” – where players spent a huge amount of time working on skills and he was also the first to bring in huge locks. His basic philosophy was that to win Test matches you needed to have a solid scrum, good lineout and a great goalkicker, with a high skill execution.

For many years we’ve been at the cutting edge of coaching, but the coaching manual has grown dramatically with an emphasis on offloading, creating one-on-ones, and getting the ball into the hands of players who can bend the line or make a half break to create an opportunity.

The issues with depth and coaching are glaringly obvious at the junior representative level in Australia. The junior Wallabies haven’t placed higher than fifth in the world in the past half a dozen years at Under 20s level and eventually this starts to show out at the top level. Unfortunately, it seems the people running this program will likely continue, which won’t improve things.

In New Zealand you see Coaches being rotated through the system. Scott Robertson is a recent example, building his experience in the club and ITM Cup competitions before taking over the New Zealand Under 20s team and on to his first Super Rugby appointment with the Crusaders next season.

At the highest level, it is an absolute must that we get the Wallabies coaching structure right around Michael Cheika. His assistant Coaches must be full time with the national program and I hope that Stephen Larkham and Nathan Grey choose to devote their full attention to the Wallabies.  A full time Wallabies coaching group could also work with the Australian Under 20s team outside of the Test windows.

It’s been a difficult first half of the year for Australian Rugby, and now is the time for the game’s administrators to take stock and take notice of what is happening in the game.

One thing we do know based on the past is, if the Wallabies manage to knock off the All Blacks on August 20, all will be quickly forgotten. Let’s hope this time is different.