Talent to Berne: New Wallabies backs coach wants players to "pick themselves" with form

The Rugby Championship
by Iain Payten

New Wallabies backs coach Shaun Berne says his job will be to help backline players “pick themselves” for World Cup roles with strong form in the Rugby Championship.

But even Berne, the Rebels assistant who was appointed last week to replace Stephen Larkham, can see Super Rugby form may have already done that job for Samu Kerevi.

Kerevi was in imperious form leading Queensland this year, topping the Super Rugby for carries and defenders beaten, and finishing second in the comp for offloads and run metres.

The powerhouse centre returned from a long-term injury into the Wallabies squad for the Spring Tour but like the Reds, Kerevi shapes as a player the Australian backline can be built around.

Berne, a former Waratahs and Australia A fly-half, has an understated coaching style where he says his goal is to help footballers play to their strengths on game day.

With Kerevi, that’s just getting the ball in his hands.

"Everyone has strengths and weaknesses but it’s about getting the guys to bring their strengths to the party for the Australian team,” Berne said.

"Samu Kerevi, for example, what he’s good at and how do we maximise that? He’s had a great season, you don’t want him to not see the ball in 80 minutes of rugby.”

Berne joined the Wallabies camp last week and linked back up with Michael Cheika; who he first played under 15 years ago when they won the 2004 Shute Shield premiership with Randwick.

The 40-year-old has been an assistant to Dave Wessels’ for the past three years, firstly at the Western Force and then the Rebels. After a 16-year playing career in Australia, England, Ireland and Italy, Berne moved into coaching in Ireland in 2015 and coached the Leinster Academy team. 

Larkham parted ways with the Wallabies program at the end of last year after disagreeing with Cheika on "attacking strategy and overall game philosophy".

After speculation that Brian Smith and even Matt Giteau could fill the backs coach role, Berne was given a call. 

"The way the Rebels probably started the season put the idea into Cheik’s head that I could do the job at this next level up,” Berne said. 

"Obviously the Rebels’ season didn’t go as planned towards the back end but Cheik still thought there was a role here for me at this level. I am delighted with that."

Berne and Cheika have a long history; both are graduates of Marcellin College in Randwick and Cheika coached the 2004 Galloping Greens team, which Berne captained from no.10.

Berne also played 38 Super Rugby games for NSW - most famously kicking a 50m goal after the siren to beat the Crusaders in 2003 - and when Cheika went to coach Leinster in Ireland he tried to recruit him.

Berne joined Bath but ended up signing with Leinster for the 2009-10 season, the year after the Irish powerhouse won the European Cup under Cheika.

"I played a few games that first season but two things happened: my body started to break down as I got into my thirties and the other was a young guy called Jonny Sexton had come through,” Berne said.

"He turned out to be not a bad player.”

Berne played a year under Joe Schmidt when Cheika departed, and played a few more years in Italy before returning to Ireland and moving into coaching school and club rugby sides.

"I always knew I had a brain for the game, the way I thought about the game I could help or add to other players, I think,” Berne said.

"I am still learning as I go and its not the easier thing, but I am passionate about rugby and trying to help guys be better players is what I want to do."

Berne did well with the Leinster academy and as part of a push to repatriate Australian coaches, he was encouraged by Rugby Australia officials to apply for for staff roles with Reds coach Nic Stiles and Wessels.

Berne has only a few months on the ground with the Wallabies before the World Cup, and will be re-joining the Rebels after the tournament.

Accordingly, he says he is not going to over-complicate his role.

"I hope to try to help the players be successful,” Berne said. 

"I can see there is so much talent in the room, they don’t need someone to come in and tell them how to play the game. There is a lot of experience and rugby IP in the room, my job is to help facilitate that and bring that out and to get them to play together.

"Obviously coming together from four different teams, these guys have to come together and bring out the strengths of each other.”

Berne paid tribute to his predeccesor Larkham, who recently signed with Munster.

"I think Stephen Larkham is a very good coach, and like all coaches, you have peaks and troughs in careers. Okay, they had a bad period here (in 2018) but that doesn’t mean Stephen isn’t a good coach,” Berne said.

"My job is not to come in here and re-invent the wheel. I am coming in with the the aim of getting the guys to play a bit better together and play some good footy.”

There are many permutations about who will be in the Wallabies backline, with perhaps all spots up for grabs expect Kerevi in the no.12.

Christian Lealiifano, Matt Toomua and Quade Cooper are all putting heat on Bernard Foley, and Kurtley Beale, Tom Banks and Dane Haylett-Petty could both fill the fullback void left by Israel Folau.

While he expects to be asked for insight and input, Berne stresses he won’t be a selector and is happy to sidestep questions asking who will end up where.

"I am not sure how that will play out. There are obviously selectors and I am not a selector. In terms of the group, my job is to get them playing the best footy they can play and if they’re doing that, they’ll pick themselves,” Berne said.

"(Fullback) is one for the selectors. They’ve been watching these camps. Michael O’Connor has been here and Scott Johnson has been around, and Cheik obviously. 

"Kurtley is a fantastic player and it’s great he’s flexible and can play in many positions. It helps the squad.

"It might depend on the opposition we’re playing, it might depend on the form of other players as well, there’s Dane Haylett-Petty, there’s Tom Banks. Jack Maddocks can play fullback as well.

"There’s quite a few options there. Although Israel Folau is a loss to any team, as statistics will prove, it is an opportunity for one of those other guys and they’re all highly talented.”

Asked if Super Rugby combinations could count in the halves - where Powell-Lealiifano, Genia-Cooper and Phipps/Gordon-Foley are all in the mix - Berne said: "It definitely helps but at the same time how many games have Bernard Foley and Will Genia played together at Test match level?”

"I don’t know the exact combination stats of all those guys but I guess my role here as a coach is to help combinations work, however they form,” Berne added.

“If it is Samu Kerevi who gets selected to play, how does he play alongside the next guy inside him? Whether it’s Quade Cooper, Matt Toomua, Bernard Foley … any of the guys who are here training with us, it’s up to the selectors to pick a squad and a team and we’ll get to work.”

Genia said Berne was a very good hands-on coach.

"He's very good at facilitating the way we want to play the game," Berne said.

"He understands how we try and play the game and the little tweaks and changes and things like that.

"He's very good in terms of his on-field coaching, getting guys to understand why they're doing things, getting guys better at doing things and he's very good at communicating all that sort of stuff. So I think it's been really enjoyable having him in here and he's had a really big impact on the group already."