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Matt Williams: Joe Schmidt faces unenviable tasks in trying to save Australian rugby from catastrophe

There is no quick fix for Australian rugby, and while Schmidt is a high quality coach, he is not a panacea

In appointing Joe Schmidt as the new Wallabies head coach, Rugby Australia (RA) has recruited a detailed, experienced, successful and highly intellectual leader. It is an appointment that I wholeheartedly support.

In 2018, when Schmidt was coaching Ireland so magnificently and defeating New Zealand in Dublin, I wrote on these pages that Ireland could win the 2019 World Cup.

What none of us foresaw was that the year ahead would become Schmidt’s annus horribilis.

Ireland getting knocked out of the World Cup in Japan after losing to New Zealand in the quarter-final was the culmination of a truly awful year. At the time I was highly critical of Schmidt’s tactics, but I was never critical of the person. I always played the ball, never the man.


Counter-intuitively, for quality coaches, a bad year can be a blessing. If a coach accepts the need for honest introspection, evaluation and feedback, then a poor season can be the foundation for future success. Watching the attitude, tactics and energy of the New Zealand team at the most recent World Cup, where Schmidt was co-ordinating their coaching, shows that the adversity of 2019 was a valuable, if painful lesson for Schmidt.

In Australia last December, over a cup of coffee, I told all of this to a leading Rugby Australia official. By the end of the second cup, I had little doubt that Schmidt was RA’s primary target for the Wallabies gig.

His appointment last week was not lauded across the entire Australian rugby community. “Another bloody Kiwi!” was shouted down my phone line more than once.

That reaction is understandable, as a string of New Zealand administrators and coaches at both provincial and national levels have forced a once proud rugby nation into attempting to imitate New Zealand. As a result, the Wallabies have lost their sense of selves, and the successful style that once made Australians so proud is no more.

So, as Schmidt pulls on his first wattle green and gold tracksuit, he faces deep scepticism because of the failures of his Kiwi predecessors. He also finds Australian rugby at its lowest ebb since the Wallabies lost to Tonga in 1973.

Again, counter-intuitively, this provides Schmidt with a great opportunity to lift the Wallabies and the Australian game.

This new beginning for Australian rugby started with fresh leadership at the very top. For the first time in the professional era, both the chairman and chief executive of RA are former Wallabies with vast experience across the entire Australian rugby landscape.

Their new chairman, Daniel Herbert, was a member of the Wallaby team that won the 1999 World Cup. Having come through the Queensland schools’ system, he played for the GPS club in Brisbane before progressing into Super Rugby with Queensland.

Phil Waugh, RA’s chief executive, followed a similar path in Sydney. Playing schools, juniors, and club before a distinguished career with both the Waratahs and Wallabies. They understand that from under-sevens to the Wallabies, the game is inextricably linked.

The Wallabies have also made the excellent appointment in Peter Horne as director of high performance, a title he held for several years with World Rugby.

While the majority of the Australian rugby community wanted a local as the national coach, Waugh, Horne and Herbert have without doubt made the correct decision in appointing Schmidt.

Like all national coaches, it is the system below the Wallabies that will determine the quality of Schmidt’s team. The failings of the past high performance systems will see many players arriving at Schmidt’s first Wallabies camp without the full set of basic competencies and rugby knowledge. This is the product of two decades of failing to properly educate the grassroots of the game.

In mathematics, if kids are not correctly taught addition, then in later life algebra becomes impossible. So it is with skills in rugby.

As Ireland’s coach, Schmidt benefited from the brilliance of the Irish system. In Australia, he will be handicapped by the dysfunctional high performance shemozzle.

The Wallabies team culture will also require an overhaul. Reports from within the camp tell of a culture where players are not willing to hold each other accountable for the standards of their play and are uncomfortable receiving feedback from fellow team-mates and staff.

Perhaps an on-field session run by Johnny Sexton accompanied by his loud and blunt communication style may awaken the Australian players to the importance of players holding each other accountable to standards on and off the field.

The entire Wallaby organisation requires a giant lift in all standards. This need is exemplified by their horrid ill-discipline, that has consistently conceded huge numbers of penalties and cards across many seasons. Schmidt’s leadership has to redefine what excellence looks like in a gold jersey.

Schmidt also has the unenviable task of mending the broken relationships between several Super Rugby franchises and RA. A mess so bitter that I have been told that when Dave Rennie was the Wallaby coach he was not welcome at some Super teams. A shameful disgrace for the guilty Super organisations.

Added to this are the voices of former coaches and players who are happy to snipe away in the media taking umbrage at every attempt at reform. At a time when a national coalition of unity is required to save the game in Oz, these people are simply inflicting more damage.

Across the next two years there are no quick fixes for Australian rugby, and while Schmidt is a high quality coach and leader, he is not a panacea.

In the past, the Australian rugby public has ignorantly placed the entire swag of Australia’s multitude of rugby problems squarely on the shoulders of a long lineage of dismissed national coaches. While the reality is Australian rugby’s catastrophic situation has been produced by a dire lack of rugby intellect and incompetence from multiple past administrations.

What gives me hope is that finally inside the head office of RA, there is now a leadership group with high rugby IQ.

Despite the shambolic Wallaby performances at last year’s World Cup and the Eddie Jones theatrics, the golden heart of Australian rugby is, against all odds, somehow still pumping.

Weak, bent out of shape but not broken.

By a considerable margin, breathing life back into the gold jersey will be the biggest task of Joe Schmidt’s coaching career.