Rugby AU changes: Five burning questions

Beth Newman Profile
by Beth Newman

Rugby Australia announced a list of changes to its Wallabies and wider high performance structures on Monday.

What are the key questions that came out of the announcement?

1. Can Rugby Australia’s new model work?

The success of Rugby Australia's new model almost entirely depends on the dynamic that Michael Cheika and Scott Johnson nut out together

This is in effect the first time as Wallabies coach that Cheika has really had a boss to directly answer to when it comes to some crucial areas of his Wallabies duties.

Rugby AU CEO Raelene Castle said on Monday that Johnson’s influence would be mainly off-field with Cheika left to “what he does best” as Wallabies coach, preparing his team for intense Test rugby.

Johnson, though, will be a selector along with Cheika so he will certainly have to be across some on-field elements of the team and will surely share opinions.

Where he draws the line on his involvement will be a pivotal one but the fact Cheika has been willing to welcome the new approach suggests he will come into it with his eyes open.

Assuming a good balance is struck, their biggest challenge is time and specifically whether there is enough to turn Australia’s World Cup trajectory around.

While Johnson will only really be on the ground with the team from March, it seems he is well across what is happening in the Australian rugby landscape and his influence will come in crucial areas.

One school of thought is that six months is simply not enough time, no matter what the circumstances.

On the other hand, there’s a view that if Johnson can wield his influence at the selection table in a positive way, a big shift could come relatively quickly.

Ultimately, it all rests on Johnson and Cheika and how they fit together.

2. What does this mean for the Wallabies assistants?

The short answer? Things are unclear when it comes to Cheika’s right-hand men.

The Wallabies coach is notoriously loyal when it comes to his staff across the board and he puts serious faith in the people he trusts.

Castle said on Monday that Cheika had recommended certain changes to his program when presenting to the board and those things would be discussed with Johnson, with announcements to be made in "due course".

All four of Cheika’s assistants – defence coach Nathan Grey, attack coach Stephen Larkham, forwards coach Simon Raiwalui and national skills coach Mick Byrne – have copped public criticism in a dismal year but Rugby AU chairman Cameron Clyne said there would be no rush on any decisions, with the Wallabies' first Test of 2019 not until July.

It seems the call may rest in the hands of Johnson, who will likely begin reviewing the situation before he hits the ground in March.

3. Why has it taken so long for nation/state to agree on an "alignment"?

Australia's move closer to a more centralised type structure could be considered inevitable, or potentially overdue, depending on who you ask.

New Zealand has long used an All Blacks-first approach, managing players’ loads and centrally contracting coaches and it’s  slowly becoming the norm across the northern Hemisphere, with Ireland the most successful in that area.

So why is Australia only just coming on board now?

Well, with the four Super Rugby sides run by individual state unions, Clyne said the ability for Rugby Australia to take control has always been limited but a refreshed relationship between nation and state had helped that process.

Things have improved significantly in the past year, with Rugby AU involved in some coaching moves, all four teams sharing fitness data, and also making a handshake agreement to work out the resting of star players in 2019.

4. How could the selection panel look?

The makeup of the Wallabies staff in 2019 is still yet to be fully settled and there is a new layer of intrigue for Rugby Australia with the role of an independent selector to be filled in early 2019.

Cheika and Johnson will fill two spots in the selection panel but the third face is set to come from outside the organisation.

The move signals a return to the type of structure Australia had when Johnson was last involved in the Wallabies, as John Connolly’s attack coach.

He sat on the panel alongside the coach back then too, with a number of influential figures filling the third spot outside of the team setup.

Back then, Tim Horan and Michael O’Connor were two of the figures who filled the independent selector’s role in the three-man panel.

Having new selectors alongside Cheika could also have a knock-on effect of keeping Australian players in the country, and out of the hands of overseas clubs.

Sources say there are a few players who’ve fallen out of favour with Cheika who’d been waiting to see what happened in this review before making decisions.

Cheika is still the coach but the addition of two other selectors could convince them to stay and keep pushing for World Cup selection and beyond.

Another important, and related, question is how quickly Johnson will get his hands dirty on player retention and recruitment.

Cheika has been heavily involved in that area for the past few years but it’s probably one of the duties he’ll pass onto Johnson.

5. How will this go down with fans?

Managing the outward perception could be the trickiest element of the announcement on Monday.

Clyne admitted sentiment towards the game rested on the fortunes of the Wallabies and they will need to start winning immediately to turn that sentiment around.

Many fans have called for change in the coaching staff at all number of levels and how this decision will be swallowed may not be determined until they actually play again next July.

The reaction to Monday's announcement was mixed and when asked about how the news might be received, Castle said there was more at stake than public perception might say.

"I think the thing that's really difficult is that fans also need to understand that we're dealing with people's lives here and we need to make sure that we go through a proper review process so that we give those people the best chance to put their case forward," she said.

"That's Michael and that's the program he's running.

"He has identified some changes he'd like to make but we need to follow some good process but part of that is discussing that with Scott and there will be some announcements in due course but we wanted to make sure we show those people the respect of the process."