Connolly: What does Australian Rugby need to fix?

John Connolly Profile
by John Connolly

With the final Australian team dropping out of the race for the Super Rugby title, it’s a time for strong reflection in our game.

While it feels a bit like everything is doom and gloom at the moment, we know how quickly things can turn around in sport.

It was only a short time ago that there was a golden glow around Australian Rugby after the Wallabies run at the World Cup, but with results in both the Super Rugby competition and the Test series against England, some frustration has set in among observers of the game.

The Brumbies were the last Australian team standing in Super Rugby. Photo: Getty Images

I have spoken to people from all walks of the Rugby public over the past couple of weeks and many have voiced their concerns over different facets of the game and the way it is being run in Australia.

I decided I would sit down and look at some of the issues in isolation and have come up with the areas I believe that need addressing in the short term to get improved outcomes for Australian Rugby.

My comments aren’t intended to be a criticism of anyone or any group in particular, more just general comment for debate from a lifelong observer of the game.

I have no doubt the game’s administrators are all hardworking people who genuinely care about the game, and they want to do the right thing. From the public point of view, we are a passionate bunch and we want the game to succeed.

To put it simply, for Australia to be number one in the world, we have to get everything right.

First I want to look at Schoolboys Rugby and I find it ludicrous that we have the Australian Schools team being selected before the Queensland GPS competition even kicks off. Schoolboys has always been independently run, but change is well overdue and it must become more closely linked to Australian Rugby. The whole selection process for the Australian team needs urgent review.

In club land, resourcing is an ongoing issue. There’s not an easy solution but I don’t think we are doing all we can to support clubs. This is the responsibility of the states, but they are governed by how much the ARU affords them. Some of the funding needs to be carved out to address club Rugby specifically. The ARU has recently invested in more development staff but we are getting hammered out there in the schools and clubs for hearts and minds by the cashed up NRL and AFL.

Australian Rugby need to take full control of the Schoolboys system. Photo: Getty Images

Next is what I see as our biggest issue in the development area, the Under 20s level. The Australian Under 20s program requires a top to bottom overhaul. Our results over the past decade reflect the serious problems and there has been very little progress made in recent years. In time, those results will show out at the highest level.

The NRC is an important competition on the pathway for professional players, but it is being treated more as an entertainment product with different rules and a different scoring system. There is no point running a competition like this unless it is preparing players for the next level, so the game conditions need to be consistent with Super Rugby. This should be easy to rectify.

A try is worth six points in the NRC to encourage running rugby. Photo: Getty Images

Some of the major issues at Super Rugby level in Australia can be attributed to the imbalanced spread of ‘top up’ players across the Australian teams. There is a salary cap in place, but the top up amounts for Wallabies players don’t factor into it. I think the cap should be overhauled to include the top up amounts, although some favour needs to be given to teams who have developed Wallabies players in their system. Sorting this area out is crucial for the survival of the Brumbies, Rebels and Force.

A Super Rugby draft has been floated on many occasions, but as I’ve said in the past I don’t believe we have the playing depth in Australia to run an effective draft system.

On the Super Rugby teams, I will add that nothing looks worse than sacking coaches mid-season. It sends a terrible message and you can understand the frustrations of the public after what occurred at the Reds and the Force this year. It’s why it is crucial to get the right coaches in place and part of the problem, in my view, is that we haven’t got the right people with the right experience selecting the coaches.

Looking at the Wallabies coaching structure, as I discussed last week, it doesn’t work having our assistant coaches working across both Super Rugby and the Wallabies. There needs to be greater cooperation between the Wallabies, Super Rugby and Under 20s programs, but our top three coaches shouldn’t be juggling full-time commitments.

Stephen Larkham and Nathan Grey are currently part time Wallabies assistant coaches Photo: Getty Images

I’d follow that point by saying I’m not a great believer in centralisation, it has been tried on a couple of occasions in the past in Australian Rugby and failed. A fully centralised coaching structure can limit players from accessing a variety of ideas as opposed to getting one view all the way through the pathway. That said, the New Zealand model is effective because there is a balance. The Crusaders, for example, are very focused on the Crusaders way of playing.

I also look at the way we are playing the game in Australia and one sure sign that things have changed is that our coaches aren’t as sort after in other parts of the globe as they were in the past. One example is the lineout has traditionally been a major strength for Australian teams, yet last weekend we watched the Brumbies lineout get dismantled by the Highlanders in Canberra.

You could argue that our teams are playing a very ruck-driven game, and the disadvantage of that is as soon as it gets a bit slow, opposition defenses are finding it easier to shut us down. The game has shifted and today there is a huge emphasis on offloads and isolating defenders to create one on ones. In stark contrast to the past, Australia has is longer setting the pace.