Brumbies: Never look a gift horse in the mouth!

In 2010, Collingwood president Eddie McGuire appointed Nathan Buckley assistant coach, despite the latter having never coached. It was part of a workplace transition plan to take over from head coach Mick Malthouse in 2012. Malthouse then moving into director of coaching, affording a graduated transition over four years. The aim: to ensure Buckley could […]

Brumbies: Never look a gift horse in the mouth!

In 2010, Collingwood president Eddie McGuire appointed Nathan Buckley assistant coach, despite the latter having never coached.

It was part of a workplace transition plan to take over from head coach Mick Malthouse in 2012. Malthouse then moving into director of coaching, affording a graduated transition over four years.

The aim: to ensure Buckley could learn as much as he could from one of the best coaches in the game.

When asked how Buckley’s transition would proceed, journalist Bruce McAvaney reported Malthouse offered: “Nathan will be given latitude and be accepted by the players initially, because of who he is and who he was… as a player!

“But as time goes on, the players will ask: ‘how is Nathan going to help me get better?’ It’s how Nathan answers that question, will determine if he will transition from great player to great coach!”

McGuire’s famous transition plan never panned out. For whatever reason, Buckley didn’t want Malthouse sitting above him.

Ex-players gifted professional coaching roles without doing the ‘yards’ can be problematic. One reason is the way professional programs are structured – players seldom have to think too far outside of their role.

Yet even assistant roles at professional level require interdependent understanding.

Further, Eddie Jones recently said:

“The problem with coaching now is that players are being taught by ex-players and not teachers.

“You see a lot of guys from my era that were ex-teachers, it definitely gave us a head start as we knew how to organise a group.

“Knew how to speak to them… you go into any classroom, and you try to work out the three or four kids who are either going to make the class good or disrupt the class and you try to establish a relationship with them.

“It was the same at the Brumbies, understanding which players were going to be influential, establish a relationship with them and which players maybe I needed to move on, and getting those mechanics right.”

Eddie Jones (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

While directly referencing teachers, looking at his mentors, he is also referring to coaches who ‘teach’.
For example, Bob Dwyer, whose career was in real estate. Jones (as did Dwyer) had another mentor – himself a great teacher despite not being formally trained in the profession.

Cyril Towers is regarded as the ‘father’ of Randwick rugby.

His span of influence also included a small public school in southern Sydney – Matraville High.

The 1977 Matraville High rugby team was a fine example of Australia’s multiculturalism. An eclectic mix of ethnic and first Australian backgrounds.

Bob Dwyer recalled attending a Waratahs Shield match between Matraville and St Joseph’s College, Hunters Hill (Joeys):

“When I watched the two teams come out, it looked like a scene out of an American movie. We were seeing kids from the wrong side of the tracks trying their hand against the superstars.

“One team ran out beautifully attired, fit, strong and healthy. The other – skinny legs and socks around their ankles.”

Matraville sent shockwaves through the stodgy rugby community by defeating the 30-time GPS champions.

Five players in the Matraville team have since gone on to change the face and fortunes of Australian rugby. The Ella Brothers, Mark, Glen and Gary; Lloyd Walker and Eddie Jones.

For ex-players who successfully transitioned to enjoy long-term coaching careers, there are some common themes:

1. They started coaching either in school or club rugby and worked their way through to professional ranks
2. They were coaching while they were playing:
a) Rod Kafer was the first player-coach to win a Super Rugby title and Heineken Cup with the Brumbies and Leicester. Further, Phil Kearns in 2000 stated that Kafer was pivotal in Australia’s World Cup win in 1999, despite not featuring as a player during the playoffs.
b) Dan Palmer and Ben Mowen both coached the Brumbies scrum and lineout, respectively, while still playing between 2012 and 2014
3. They were part of environments where significant ‘workplace learning’ was a feature.

Jones recognised and enabled Kafer’s attributes.

Similarly, Laurie Fisher further recognised and enabled the same in Palmer and Mowen.

Dan Palmer is enjoying a post-rugby career in coaching. (AAP Image/Alan Porritt)

Emotional quotient is an attribute common among the ‘great’ coaches.

Why? Because the best coaches don’t have to be the smartest in the room. They recruit, develop and enable world-class expertise where gaps are in their programs.

But first, they need to be generalist enough to know where the gaps are. Then they need appropriate expertise to coordinate all interdependent variables in one direction.

Why then would Buckley not want one of the great all-time coaches around? Was it insecurity?

We’ll never know.

The Brumbies have been gifted a massive opportunity, in the future development of their people, through Dan McKellar’s deserved promotion to the Wallabies.

McKellar is one of the great stories of resilience and having an optimistic mindset.

He started as a country rugby player with Burdekin Canetoads, progressing to colts, then premier grade at Souths in Brisbane.

From Souths and at the ripe old age of 29, he received a contract with the Reds.

When transitioning to coaching, McKellar didn’t take the easy option.

Instead, he started back in club rugby to learn the trade, initially as an assistant under Souths legend and mentor, Ian Cameron.

He led Souths to a grand final in 2009, before transitioning to full-time head coach with Tuggeranong Vikings, Canberra in 2011.

Won two premierships and an Australian Club Championship with Vikings (defeating both Sunnybank and Sydney University).

Laurie Fisher, intrigued as to whether Vikings’ success was recruitment or coaching-based, watched them train in mid 2012.

He returned a McKellar fan, estimating that they moved around the field at around 20 metres per minute faster than other club sides. McKellar’s athletic performance coach, Ben Norcott, was a big part of this, as well.

In late 2013, Fisher’s first act as Brumbies director of rugby was to poach McKellar from Japan.

Under the banner of ‘workplace learning’, I have previously highlighted the importance of head coaching at Premier Club level as a contextual steppingstone to becoming an elite rugby head coach.

Another part of McKellar’s effective transition from assistant to head coach at Super level was Stephen Larkham occupying dual roles with the Wallabies and Brumbies from 2015.

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This afforded opportunity, in conjunction with athletic performance guru Ben Serpell, to coordinate the Brumbies program in Larkham’s absence.

The key being through the off-season and without ‘game’ pressure that can overwhelm and affect decision-making.

Serpell’s influence during this period can’t be underestimated.

While head of athletic performance from 2016 until the end of 2019, the Brumbies were able to achieve two seasons where player availability for training and games was above 95 per cent.

Additionally, during the season, individual players improved across all physiological markers. Arguably the world’s best metrics across any sport, let alone a heavy collision sport.

This is a key measure (outside of traditional win-loss) of ‘programming’ effectiveness.

The other is injuries. During this period, the Brumbies were the best prepared and least injured.

Larkham recognised he had a world-class coaching team (others included John Pryor – consultant, athletic performance, Peter Ryan – defence and Dan Palmer – scrum) and while setting the structure for responsibility, he trusted each, to interdependently contribute.

Munster coach Stephen Larkham

Stephen Larkham (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

In terms of coach development, think open water training 50 metres off White Sands Beach, Kodiak Island, Alaska before being dropped off in the middle of the Baring Sea during hurricane season, versus an outdoor pool in San Diego… then being dropped in the middle of the Baring Sea!

In leading the Wallaby forwards, McKellar will be afforded the opportunity to experience the requirements at that level and take the learnings back to the Brumbies at completion.

McKellar’s world-class expertise is matched by the other coaches within the Wallaby setup, all bringing an eclectic mix of variety in strengths:

• Dave Rennie, bearing responsibility for final decision-making
• Scott Wisemantel (attack)
• Matt Taylor (defence)
• John Pryor (athletic performance)
• Ben Serpell (consultant)

There will, however, be greater diversity of views of effective player and team preparation within this group than Dan has been used to in recent years.

Post the 2007 World Cup, Robbie Deans was favoured to take over as All Blacks head coach.

All Black captain Richie McCaw came out in support of the then coaching group, Graham Henry, Steve Hansen, Wayne Smith, Mick Byrne and Gilbert Enoka.

New Zealand captain Richie McCaw

Richie McCaw (AP Photo/Scott Heppell)

Stating he was happy to play under either (head coach), he expressed concern (to the board) that Deans would surround himself with support staff who wouldn’t challenge him.

Under Henry, the coaching group challenged each other constantly – always in search of the best result. McCaw felt it was one of their strengths.

Deans, on the other hand, had a history of falling out with and then replacing his assistants.

History shows that New Zealand Rugby Union’s strength in supporting that coaching group led to the All Blacks becoming one of the greatest teams in the history of all sport.

I am a massive fan of Dan McKellar. I hope that this change of scenery will propel him to the next level in his coaching.

Laurie Fisher and Dan McKellar are incredibly similar.

There is an argument that they could be one voice in a coaching room which may drown out others, particularly with a talented, but relatively young coaching group.

With McKellar’s Wallaby appointment, the Brumbies have a wonderful opportunity for workplace growth in their high performance staff.

It’s inevitable that being an assistant again will bring (slightly) less pressure.

With a little more room ‘upstairs’, my hope is that McKellar is able to reflect on the benefits of an eclectic environment where shared ideas and debate is a feature, then encourage more of that from his less experienced assistants on return to the Brumbies.

Laurie Fisher, aside from being one of the world’s best coaches, has also been an incredible mentor to many. Mowen and Palmer are examples. The one thing missing from his career at the moment is international coaching.

If McKellar continues his improvement, he is in pole position to be the next Wallaby coach. That potentially forbids opportunity for Fisher to cap off a remarkable coaching career, by finally realising that dream.

If there was ever a time that bucking the trend of hopelessly short term thinking in rugby (in general), this is it for the Brumbies leadership!

The easy option would be to say, “Lord, you run the program while Dan is away.”

What is the pitfall of that? A potential disaster in IP dissolution post the 2023 World Cup (if both Fisher and McKellar move on).

What is the alternative and what are the potential benefits?

With no NRC and effectively five months before the start of the next pre-season, there is opportunity to provide each member of the coaching group with extra responsibility without the suffocating stress and decision limiting, week-to-week game pressure.

Allow them to develop appreciable voice and contextual experience that will more greatly serve the organisation, both within the coaching room moving forward and also two years down the track when change is more than likely.

It will allow Rod Seib to step up with relevant contextual program management experience, similar to that of McKellar in 2017.

What else can potentially be gained?

With Fisher in an over-arching avuncular role, the ability to look from the outside in.

In addition to accelerating workforce progression, utilise action research in some experimentation via linking athletic performance and skill for more robust individual development – an area that’s gaining more traction in sport.

Innovation has always been at the heart of the Brumbies:

•McQueen’s democratising of Leadership ’96–’97
• ones’s changing of the game ’98-’01
•Fisher and Scrivener’s skills focus in ‘04
•Benton’s overarching program management and maximisation of resources ’12-’13
• Serpell’s maximisation of physical output, injury reduction and leadership research and implementation ’16- ’19.

They have the personnel, and the time is right for the next evolution.

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The 1995 decisions that took southern hemisphere rugby down the wrong path

This article is in response to the recent article by Brett McKay highlighting calls by various coaches and personalities to bring back the NRC. Apart from the obvious fact Rugby Australia doesn’t have the money to reprise the NRC – or ARC, for that matter – I’ve always disputed its legitimacy on the grounds it […]

The 1995 decisions that took southern hemisphere rugby down the wrong path

This article is in response to the recent article by Brett McKay highlighting calls by various coaches and personalities to bring back the NRC.

Apart from the obvious fact Rugby Australia doesn’t have the money to reprise the NRC – or ARC, for that matter – I’ve always disputed its legitimacy on the grounds it duplicated unnecessary resources.

Southern hemisphere rugby, including Australian rugby, took a wrong turn back in 1995. Everything they’ve done since has created extra expenses, required extra funds, which in turn meant seeking out extra, impractical revenue streams that were unnecessary.

How for example, is it a victory for South African Super Rugby teams to move offshore to Europe, to be soon followed presumedly by the Springboks?

Back in 1995 the southern hemisphere had a structural set-up that was close to perfect. What it required was fleshing out and building upon the solid footings and foundations already long established, not displacing them, as occurred when the game went professional in 1996.

New Zealand had its NPC divided into several divisions. South Africa likewise had its Currie Cup divided into several divisions. Even the staunchly amateur Argentina had a similar set-up, with its 16 provinces divided into two divisions.

Australia of course was the weak link. It had only two provinces of note: New South Wales Queensland. But there was room for future growth with long-established minor provinces such as ACT, Victoria, Western Australia, South Australia, NSW Country and Queensland Country.

Down the track NSW Country could have been embedded in Newcastle and created the new province of Eastern Australia. Similarly, Queensland Country could have been embedded in Townsville to create North Queensland. In the embryonic years of the game, before the union-league split of 1907, these two regions produced plenty of Wallabies.

When professionalism came, each of the southern hemisphere nations – New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina and Australia – should have been encouraged to form an eight-team national competition.

The three first-named nations could have done this relatively quickly, with Australia perhaps starting with six teams and building towards eight teams. The Super 10 of 1993-95 was effectively a Champions Cup and should have remained so. In 1996 it could have been expanded to 12 teams, three per nation, and contested after the respective national tournaments.

The season would have unfolded as follows: an eight-team competition of home-and-away games totalling 14 matches plus a final four. This would have meant a season of 14 to 16 matches per team.

The top three teams from each country would then contest the Super 12 – four pools of three teams. This would be quickly over with each team playing two to four matches. Meanwhile, the remaining teams in the various national competitions could conduct a knockout style tournament involving no more than four matches for the finalists.

Consequently each team in each country would play between 16 and 20 matches, which is plenty for a first-class-style season. Add a preseason of three to four matches and combine that with ten to 12 Tests per nation, and the season is pretty much full.

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Finally, the Rugby Championship was a great addition to the annual season.

I would have loved, for example, watching the Wallabies, All Blacks, Springboks and Pumas circa 1985 being guided around the park by their champion number-10s in Mark Ella (then Mike Lynagh), Wayne Smith (then Grant Fox), Naas Botha and Hugo Porta.

The various national competitions would have worked like the Sheffield Shield in its heyday, with established stars, young up-and-comers and still-performing veterans all in the same team, the experienced mentoring the newcomers and testing the same in the opposition.

In Australia the depth would have been initially weak, but as the national competition gained traction, hopefully this problem would have been rectified.

But sadly none of this happened. It is a little-known fact that in 1996 the working title for Super 12 was the IPC – International Provincial Championship. In other words, it was supposed to work exactly the same as the Super 10 of 1993-95.

The Kiwis were first to blink. Instead of staring down the minor provinces and stating that the top eight provinces should come from the eight biggest geographical regions, they rolled over and created five artificial franchises.

The Saffies held the line for several seasons, but by 1999 they also buckled and created four, then five and later six artificial franchises. However, unlike New Zealand, the South African franchises in most cases didn’t pretend to be very different from their major provinces.

(Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

Australia of course didn’t have to worry about these trivialities. It quite proudly created – or rebranded – the ACT, giving it three provinces. But eventually it had another problem. While New Zealand and South Africa had their national tournaments to fall back on as a mid-tier competition, Australia had no such thing.

While once upon a time the Sydney Shute Shield and Brisbane Hospital Cup might have done the job of producing future Wallabies, the caravan had moved on since leading players were almost never seen in district club rugby. So those players plying their trade in these competitions were not getting the development they needed.

Consequently, the then Rugby AU introduced the ARC in 2007 and the NRC in 2014-19. Both competitionss have struggled with poorly conceptualised teams, financial blowouts and a lack of support. Duplication of resources hasn’t helped the financial bottom line.

Over at SANZAAR, things just went from crazy to crazier. While introducing an Argentine team was absolutely necessary to complement the Pumas, the introduction of a Japanese team was pie-in-the-sky stuff. Meanwhile, the Saffies failed to stare down their government and advise them clearly there was no place for a sixth franchise.

Super Rugby never really gained traction once the initial novelty wore off. Playing offshore is the job of national teams, not domestic provincial teams. Playing in South Africa in the middle of the night put the game out of sight, out of mind.

If you really want a national competition, what you want is a version of the NRL or AFL. Fans want to see their best homegrown teams with their best homegrown talent playing on home grounds at home-friendly times.

Andy Marinos, the former chief executive of SANZAAR, now finds himself leading Australian rugby. It’s beyond my comprehension that there were no suitable alternatives found – Marinos is quoted in McKay’s article as one of those lamenting the loss of the NRC.

But Marinos is just one in a very long line of administrators who have continually got it more wrong than right since 1996. Funny – the suits back then were warning us that professionalism would destroy the very ethos of rugby.

Yet many of those same suits couldn’t get their snouts in the money trough quickly enough. They eyed more broadcast money than they had ever seen before, and they completely lost their heads. Led by the pied pipers at News – who had their own, different agenda – they took the game down the wrong path.

And now, a quarter of a century later, southern hemisphere rugby is effectively stuffed.

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