Brumbies captain Christian Lealiifano has expressed his disappointment at the handling of Stephen Larkham’s Wallabies axing but both he and ACT coach Dan McKellar backed the legendary 10 to return to the national fold.
Lealiifano was one of four Super Rugby captains gathered at Tuesday's competition launch and though round one is just 10 days away, the shadow of Larkham's axing dominated the conversation around the event.
Speaking to media on Monday, Rugby AU CEO Raelene Castle said Wallabis coach Michael Cheika had proposed the move to axe Larkham over differences of opinion in attacking strategy during last year’s season review but the move was not finalised until this week.
Lealiifano, for whom Larkham has been a long-time mentor, said the news came as a major surprise to him.
“Shocked and probably a little bit disappointed how it's all gone down,” he said.
“I feel for him, obviously I've had him as a coach at the Brumbies and done a little bit of work with him in the Wallabies setup but I'm hoping that he's okay and he gets to continually develop and grow with how he wants to.
“I think nobody knew what was happening after reviews and all that kind of stuff so right now I feel like an outsider looking in, I haven't been inside that setup for almost three years now, but it probably dragged on a bit and we didn't know what was happening.
“(We) probably still don’t know what's happening with most of the staff there but that's probably all I can say about that is just how long it took for them to get an outcome or result.
“It's come around the week before Super Rugby starts, so it's not ideal but hopefully we can shift our focus into Super Rugby starting now and move forward.”
Both Lealiifano and Larkham’s long-time Brumbies deputy Dan McKellar backed Larkham to return to the national fold.
Asked if felt Larkham should still be considered a future Wallabies coach, McKellar said: “100 per cent."
“He was very good in the time that I worked with him as head coach of the Brumbies, he's very calm, composed, very measured in his approach deep thinker who knows the game so well," McKellar added.
“I think his future in Super Rugby, Test rugby whatever it might be, there's many more years ahead of him.”
WALLABIES PLAYERS REACT
Wallabies skipper Michael Hooper said there were no outward signs of disharmony between Larkham and Cheika despite the former citing “differences in attacking strategy and overall game philosophy” in a release about his axing.
“One of the parts of our team is having aligned conflict,” he said.
“If everyone's saying yes, then we're not getting the right result.
“I know last year wasn't great results but there was guys who were invested and wanting to see the best for the team and voicing their opinions.
“You'd have to ask them what it was like behind closed doors but it was always put out to the team as an aligned group when it was presented.”
Test centre Samu Kerevi said he wasn’t expecting the news of Larkham’s departure.
“I was pretty surprised, I didn't know that was going to happen,” he said.
“We didn't see much of it in camp, everything was all good in camp. It's sad to see, especially myself, I worked closely with Bernie in the backline and the rest of us so he'll be sorely missed.
“My focus on Reds right now and obviously when the Wallabies comes around, focus on that.”
Rugby AU CEO Raelene Castle ruled out raiding a Super Rugby club for a replacement for Larkham but confirmed that they would be aiming to install someone in the coming months.
“Our preference is not to disturb Super Rugby, they're happy with their coaching structures,” she said.
“We think it's important we give them the best chance of being focused on performing in Super Rugby this year so we'll be looking for someone outside Super.”
While Castle said Rugby AU had identified some potential candidates, the process of hiring a new face wouldn't ramp up until new director of rugby Scott Johnson arrives in Australia next month.