In the third of a series of RUGBY.com.au interviews with Australian Super Rugby coaches, Brumbies coach Dan McKellar talks on reforming the Brumbies in 2018, the challenges and breakthroughs, resting Wallabies and giving James Slipper a second chance.
Brumbies coach Dan McKellar says he will keep banging the drum until authorities stamp out the dangerous practice of neck rolls in rugby.
McKellar is currently preparing his squad for the 2019 Super Rugby season in Canberra, and occasionally sights on-leave flanker David Pocock in HQ turning like an Easter Island statue; feeling the effects of numerous neck injuries in 2018.
It is a reminder that despite the Brumbies' best efforts this year to highlight rivals trying to shift Pocock at the breakdown by twisting his head and neck, there has been no substantive response from SANZAAR or World Rugby.
Hurricanes players were given off-field warnings only, and Pocock was later ruled out of a Rugby Championship game after copping several neck rolls in a Bledisloe Cup games.
Ongoing neck issues then saw him miss the final Test of the year and a still-sore Pocock said last week doctors had warned him about long-term impacts.
"It just has to be ruled out. It is a little bit surprising we are still having this conversation,” McKellar said.
"Whether it is Poey or whatever player it might be, it could be (Michael) Hooper or (Will) Miller, whoever it is, it is just a dangerous action.
"Are we going to wait until there is a serious injury there? David is obviously, through ongoing issues there in and around the breakdown, he is starting to … have some problems around his neck area. I think has just got to be ruled out of the game.
"We are not about whingeing, and rugby is a tough game and we understand the physical element to it. But it has got to be legal, and we are responsible for our players and we have to make sure we are looking after our players.
"We felt that David had some treatment during the season that wasn’t legal, and if we’re yellow carding and red carding guys for accidentally taking people out in the air, why are we not dealing with and managing guys who are having their head twisted on a number of different occasions at the breakdown?”
Pocock is expecting to be back to full health for the opening round of Super Rugby in 2019 in February, and McKellar would understandably love him on deck.
The Brumbies finished their 2018 season just one win out of the top eight, and a sixth consecutive playoffs appearance.
Pocock returned to Canberra after a sabbatical year in 2017 but carrying a knee injury, and McKellar took the tough decision to send the star no.7 to surgery, ruling him out of the first four games.
With a long stretch of pre-season and early Super Rugby rounds on the road, the Brumbies went 2-2 in the opening month and the two poor losses to Melbourne and Queensland would be among a handful McKellar would look at ruefully at the end of a regular season.
McKellar, stepping up to his first year as head coach after four years as forwards coach under Stepyen Larkham, came into the top job keen to reform the Brumbies.
The forward-based game ushered in by Jake White in 2012 had worked well for the last five years but it had never yielded a title. Change was required, said McKellar.
"I just feel that having strong maul and scrum and lineout, there are going to be times when that will win you games,” he said.
"But I think in Super Rugby you have to be able to score tries, stats tell us you have to be up around that 70 (tries) mark to be in the top two. I just wanted to challenge the group around being more threatening from unstructured situations.
"There are 30-turnovers plus a game, and sometimes you’ll get eight lineouts a game. So the numbers tell you you just can’t be putting all your eggs in one basket.”
Wins over the Sunwolves, and the Sharks at home, kept the Brumbies afloat early but their fortunes sank badly with a five-game losing stretch mid-year.
Though in the fight for most of them, the ACT men lost games to the Highlanders, Jaguares, Crusaders, Rebels and Lions.
McKellar’s style change was under public scrutiny - was this new attacking mentality going to work? Should they just go back to the tried and true?
Players were on board but instinctively falling back on old habits, believes McKellar.
"I think we were stuck in how we played previously - 2017 going back to 2012 - and (not) really having a grasp on what we were trying to achieve in the group,” McKellar said.
"It was a learning time .. before we went to South Africa, just our mindset and our messaging as a coaching group just shifted completely.
" Up until that point in time we were in all those games and in a position to win, but were we fearing errors or losing the game instead of backing our belief and backing our plan, and then the systems put in place, and just going out and doing it.
"Through that shift in mindset we had, we couldn’t be worried about what might happen, we just had to go out and back ourselves and we did that at Ellis Park."
The fifth consecutive loss of the streak came against the Lions in Johannesburg but it was still a turning point, for the season and potentially for the future too.
With Tom Banks beginning a sizzling stretch for form, the Brumbies led the eventually finalists after an hour but after being reduced to 13 men due to Rory Arnold’s red card and Sam Carter’s yellow, the Lions rolled home.
“While we lost that game, the mood in the dressing room was a positive feel and it was like we turned the corner,” McKellar said.
HOME WITH A WET SAIL
Things finally clicked in Pretoria a week later for the Brumbies.
With Banks again on fire, they beat the Bulls in hostile territory - despite again losing Folau Faingaa to a red card in the last 20 minutes.
“Again around our mindset, we didn’t fear what might happen, we didn’t fear losing, we just went out and backed our ability and backed our skill,” McKellar said.
"Banksy was obviously at the heart of that, scored a couple of great tries that day, in particularly that one from deep in our d-zone.
"That was probably the shift in the Brumbies, the mindset around being prepared to take a risk.
“That result there just proved to the boys that the plan and the vision we had for the group was certainly achievable and again we’d taken another step forward.”
The Brumbies came home, beat the Sunwolves and then downed the Hurricanes at home as well.
Suddenly their finals chances were alive again, but a narrow loss to the Chiefs in Hamilton left them with the dreaded mathematical chance in the last round against the Waratahs.
They downed the Australian conference champions - and eventual semi-finalists - in a dominant win in Sydney but it wasn’t enough.
"You can’t help but think about if we’d managed to finish the job against Melbourne at home, all of a sudden that puts us into the finals. Round two in Brisbane, where we played poorly but still could have won. You think about all those things,” McKellar said.
"But you also think about the positive. There was a really positive feel from the last six weeks of the season. Going to Sydney against a quality side and beating the Waratahs on their home ground was a really positive achievement for us.”
McKellar says while they won’t dwell on the feel good of the last six weeks, nor assume it will return in February, it did leave him with a sense that the reformation of the Brumbies style was now bedded down.
"There’s the what-ifs, but there’s also the real positive feel that we’ve turned the corner. It just gives us momentum going into this time of year,” he said.
McKellar and the Brumbies were involved in tense negotiations with Wallabies coach Michael Cheika ahead of the June series, when he was asked to rest Pocock, Scott Sio and Allan Alaalatoa for the Sunwolves game.
McKellar declined given the short notice, but said there were valuable lessons learned; particularly with the World Cup around the corner, and more player resting scheduled under a new national high performance framework now made official.
"The learnings are just be planned and organised well in advance, and that’s where we are at the moment,” McKellar said.
"We’ve had a number of conversations with Michael, we all get it, we understand what Michael wants to achieve. We all want the Wallabies to win the World Cup, there’s no doubting that.
“As long as we are having the conversations early … and it’s planned in advance then we can come to an arrangement where both parties are happy. I think that was the learning from this year, leading into the Sunwolves, having a request a week before is probably not ideal from our point of view."
SECOND CHANCE SLIPPER
The Brumbies haven’t recruited extensively for the 2019 season but have made a few big signings, including Wallabies flanker Peter Samu and former NRL player Tom Wright.
The biggest new recruit is 86-Test prop James Slipper, who switched from long-time home Queensland after a controversial year.
Battling personal issues, Slipper was banned for testing positive to cocaine and Brad Thorn’s hardline approach meant he had no future at Ballymore.
McKellar was only too happy to not only bring an experienced Test prop into his front row rotation, but to give Slipper the chance for redemption as well.
"There wouldn’t be too many individuals on the planet who haven’t made a mistake,” McKellar said.
"I have certainly made plenty of mistakes and I am all for, as long the person is in the right headspace, providing that second chance.
"Canberra and the Brumbies culture and environment is a good place for Slips to be. He is driven to get better as a footballer and we will back our program to make sure that happens.
"He wasn’t interested in just staying in Queensland and playing at his club, he wanted to play at the highest level. I was comfortable in the footballer and I am comfortable with the person I would be bringing to the club."