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'The time isn't quite right' for Dan McKellar or Stephen Larkham with Wallabies

By Ned Lester
Dan McKellar and Stephen Larkham. Photo by Malcolm Couzens/Getty Images and Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

Rugby Australia’s hiring of Joe Schmidt as Wallabies coach looks to wrap a band-aid around a sport in a state of healing after a disastrous 12 months.

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Beyond those 12 months there’d been a decline in results, but a World Cup year with an overall record of two from nine was a new low for the Wallaby gold.

In response, former coach Eddie Jones stepped away from the team and there was a huge question mark over who would be his successor.

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Given the state of the game in Australia and the work being undertaken by RA to get it back on track, the role was seen as being a little more complex than the average head coaching gig. For that reason, the appetite for an Australian coach to lead the team – a notion that already had plenty of weight behind it – grew.

However, with Schmidt’s appointment, that wish has not been granted. There were local candidates, but the question was were they ready for the next level?

Pundits can only read into the subtext of Schmidt’s opening press conference for insights into what Rugby Australia thought the answers were.

Regardless, the appointment is proving to be a popular one.

“It’s a solid eight or nine, there’s no doubt about it,” Brett McKay said when asked by Newstalk ZB to rank the appointment out of 10.

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“When it becomes apparent the Wallabies need a new head coach, then you immediately start casting the mind and start thinking, who’s out there? Who’s available? Who’s good enough? who’s ready? The field probably wasn’t as big as we would have liked as Australian rugby fans.

“Dan McKellar’s name got thrown up, Stephen Larkham’s name got thrown up, but I think deep down, both those guys would probably say that whilst they absolutely would have ambitions of coaching Australia at some point, I think they both would probably concede that the time isn’t quite right at the moment.

“So, then it becomes a question of who is actually the best candidate? There’s been all sorts of opinions expressed in the past 12 months, how the successor to the Wallabies coach should really be an Australian.

“We keep on going on about ‘the Australian way’ and I’ve heard all this talk about the Australian way for 15 years, I’ve never really heard it defined. So, at the moment I think it just needed to be the best person available and Joe Schmidt’s name came up early, his credentials are impeccable, essentially.

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“The fact that he was interested is a huge coup for Rugby Australia. And, I suppose it’s an early win for the new regime under Phil Waugh and Dan Herbert – old Wallaby teammates of course – who are trying to do their very best to rebuild the game.”

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So, what kind of team is Schmidt inheriting?

“At the moment, the cliché would be to say the system’s broken. Everything’s buggered. What is he inheriting? He’s inheriting a mess. I don’t think things are ever quite as bad or as good as we make out.

“Certainly, he’s got some work to do to rebuild and regain trust of the playing group, and we’ve seen a few quotes and a few comments by Wallabies players who went to the World Cup, and those who were left at home in recent months and with every new quote that comes out, the picture and the narrative around the environment that Eddie Jones was running, only gets worse.

“And so, he’s certainly got a job to rebuild trust with the playing group. And I’m already seeing a few little comments here and there that the Super Rugby coaches are really happy with the appointment, they look forward to working with him.

“So, I think we may see even more collaboration than we have in recent years – and it had been getting a lot better. Certainly, Dave Rennie was very proactive in that area.

“So, he’s got a bit of work to do, but I don’t think it’s insurmountable and that’s going to be the silver lining that Joe Schmidt will be holding on to. Yes, there’s work to do, but it’s not work that’s overly difficult and it’s almost certainly not work that he hasn’t done before. We all know the success he had in uniting the Provinces in Ireland and obviously their restructured set-up and centralised models had a lot to do with that, but he was very much a figurehead in that.

“So, if anyone can bring self-interested states together in Australia, then someone like Joe Schmidt who had to do exactly that in Ireland is definitely well equipped to do that.”

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Poorfour 5 hours ago
The AI advantage: How the next two Rugby World Cups will be won

AI models are really just larger and less transparent variants of the statistical models that have been in use since Moneyball was invented. And a big difference between the Icahn centre’s results and AI today is that ChatGPT-like Large Language Models can explain (to some degree) how they reached their conclusions. In terms of what impact they will have, I suspect it will have two primary impacts: 1) It will place a premium on coaching creativity 2) It will lead to more selections that baffle fans and pundits. Analysts will be able to run the models both ways: they will see their own team’s and players’ weaknesses and strengths as well as the opposition’s. So they will have a good idea at what the other team will be targeting and the decisive difference may well be which coaches are smart enough to think of a gameplan that the other side didn’t identify and prepare for. For players, it places a premium on three key things: 1) Having a relatively complete game with no major weaknesses (or the dedication to work on eliminating them) 2) Having the tactical flexibility to play a different game every week 3) Having a point of difference that is so compelling that there isn’t a defence for it. (3) is relatively rare even among pro players. There have been only a handful of players over the years where you knew what they were going to do and the problem was stopping it - Lomu would be the classic example. And even when someone does have that, it’s hard to sustain. Billy Vunipola in his prime was very hard to stop, but fell away quite badly when the toll on his body began to accumulate. So coaches will look for (1) - a lack of exploitable weaknesses - and (2) - the ability to exploit others’ weaknesses - ahead of hoping for (3), at least for the majority of the pack. Which is likely to mean that, as with the original Moneyball, competent, unshowy players who do the stuff that wins matches will win out over outrageous talents who can’t adapt to cover their own weaknesses. Which will leave a lot of people on the sidelines sputtering over the non-inclusion of players whose highlights reels are spectacular, but whose lowlight reels have been uncovered by AI… at least until the point where every fan has access to a sporting analysis AI.

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