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RUGBYPASS+ The game behind the game

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The game behind the game

World Cup-Wallabies assistant coach Shaun Berne was naturally disappointed when the Rebels asked him to follow Dave Wessels out the door last month.

But it didn’t surprise him.

“You know that as a coach when you sign up, you’re waiting to get sacked,” Berne told The XV, a day after the Rebels thanked him for his four-years of service.

“It’s whether you get sacked in one year, two years or three years’ time.”

It’s a sombre reality, which puts in plain daylight the cutthroat industry that coaches deal with daily.

“You know it’s results based,” he continues.

“You get a result every week for your performance. Day-to-day jobs don’t always have that. If you don’t perform, players get dropped out of the starting team; the coaches, look at any sport, Nathan Buckley’s under pressure at [AFL club] Collingwood, that’s just the nature of it. You come under pressure if you don’t win.”

Shaun Berne (middle) and Dave Wessels (right) have been familiar presences in the Wallabies set-up during the test calendar. (Photo by Will Russell/Getty Images)

Unlike the vast majority of players though, there’s generally another team waiting to pick you up, particularly in rugby where there’s now five Super sides unlike the three that existed at the turn of the century.

In Super Rugby, there’s approximately 200 players with contracts. There are just five head coaching roles and on average another three assistant coaches in each of the five Super Rugby franchises.

When Wessels fell on his sword and resigned following the Super Rugby AU season less than a week after missing the three-team finals series, the Rebels board decided to make a clean break and asked Berne, a talented playmaker with the Waratahs who played under Michael Cheika at Leinster, to follow him out the door.

It left the Rebels with just three coaches in total, as South African Kevin Foote stepped up as defence coach to take the head coaching responsibilities ahead of five crunch matches against New Zealand opposition.

The Rebels might have needed a new voice after hearing the same ones for four years, but given the importance of showing something on the trans-Tasman stage the timing is flat out bizarre.

All the while, they lost Wessels, who in 2021 had taken over the running of the attack, and Berne who had taken on a skills-based coaching role for two reasons.

First, the Rebels board were agitated why the attack wasn’t humming in 2020.

Second, feedback from the playing group spoke of the necessity to do more skill work.

The decision to move Berne on left the Rebels short on coaches ahead of their five-week sprint trans-Tasman crossover.

He admits the Rebels might have needed a new voice after hearing the same ones for four years, but given the importance of showing something on the trans-Tasman stage the timing is flat out bizarre.

Rugby Australia was asked to provide resources and director of rugby Scott Johnson and Wallabies attack coach Scott Wisemantel have both spent considerable time down at the Rebels in an attempt to help through the final third of their season.

The Rebels have been brushed aside by the Blues and Hurricanes in this year’s Super Rugby Trans-Tasman competition. (Photo by AAP Image/Scott Barbour

Wallabies coach Dave Rennie, like he has at all of the Super Rugby franchises, has spent time down in Melbourne too.

Not that their presence had made a difference on the scoreboard yet, with the Rebels being well-beaten in their two matches ahead of Sunday’s fixture against the Highlanders.

But the national coach knows the scenario of having part-time coaches in a high-performance team is far from ideal.

Berne accepted the decision to move on graciously.

Never one to spit the dummy, he was as loyal as a dog under Wessels and rallied behind despite philosophically not being aligned with the recently departed coach.

It’s a big learning that I can take forward into my next role. It doesn’t make me question if I am a good coach. It makes me further believe what I probably already knew.

Despite result not always going the Rebels’ way, Berne has learned some important lessons

Under Wessels in 2021, the Rebels believed their best chance of success was to take a ‘Moneyball’ stats approach to the game.

Were it not for two opening heartbreaking losses with the final kicks of the game against the Reds and Brumbies, it might have worked.

It didn’t, but as Berne admits, the players bought into the game-plan.

“The playing group, to Dave’s credit, they all got in behind it and tried to carry that plan through,” he says.

“But again, it’s led by Dave, and I’m not criticising that because at the start of the year I could have walked away and said I didn’t want to play that way. I didn’t do that. I got in behind the head coach like the players did, and ultimately, it’s been to our detriment.  

“Have I learned from that? Yes, it’s a big learning that I can take forward into my next role. It doesn’t make me question if I am a good coach. It makes me further believe what I probably already knew.”

Wallabies coaches Scott Wisemantel and Dave Rennie have both spent time in the Rebels’ camp this year. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Berne doesn’t harbour any resentment to Wessels for how the Rebels’ year unfolded, where they won just three of eight matches in Super Rugby AU. Quite the contrary, in fact.

“He’s a good coach and I think wherever he goes next will be lucky to have him,” Berne says of the man who brought him to the Force and took him to the Rebels.

“A couple of results go slightly different and we’re having a different conversation.”

It’s the story of the Rebels over the past four years.

In 2018 and 2019, the Rebels raced out of the gates only to stumble and never recover. It’s something that’s puzzled the playing group and their coaching staff.

I might not necessarily agree all the time what the head coach is doing, but you’re in behind, you’re supporting, you’re behind the team, you’re all in the same boat rowing the same way.

Berne on his coaching policy

Interestingly though, some players at the Rebels didn’t think highly of Berne as a coach until he joined Cheika at the Wallabies.

“You’re working under a head coach and a certain direction,” Berne says.

“I tried to do the best I could every time in whatever environment and you try to get in behind the head coach and give as much support as you can.

“It’s interesting feedback from players.

“I might not necessarily agree all the time what the head coach is doing, but you’re in behind, you’re supporting, you’re behind the team, you’re all in the same boat rowing the same way.”

Loyal to a fault.

Dave Wessels didn’t enjoy the best time with the Rebels during Super Rugby with a 9th place finish in 2018 the team’s best showing. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Even still, Berne believes he’s a better coach now than the one who arrived in Melbourne ahead of the 2018 season.

“I think some of the best coaches around the world have experienced both winning and losing and been part of very successful environments,” he reflects. “I returned to Australia from Leinster, where I got to see what first-class high-performance looks like and then I helped the Western Force for a year and arrived at the Rebels where they hadn’t won a game and almost had success.

“But, of course, I back myself. Like Eddie Jones has been sacked by how many clubs? He’s going through that now with England and he’s a rugby coach, so he’ll get sacked at some point as well unless he walks. But he wouldn’t have learned to become the coach he is without those experiences.

“I’m a better coach than I was when I arrived four years ago.”

He has a Wallabies coaching job on his CV too.

  “My journey with that is it gave me confidence that I could coach at the highest level,” he says.

Eddie Jones has been sacked by how many clubs? He’s going through that now with England and he’s a rugby coach, so he’ll get sacked at some point as well unless he walks.

Berne on the inevitably of coaching tenures coming to an end

As he fondly remembers too, opposing assistant coach Ian Foster said following the All Blacks’ Bledisloe levelling win in Auckland in 2019: “It’s one-all”.

Berne has been contacted by RA since being let go by the Wallabies. Like Andy Friend in Ireland and Les Kiss in England, Johnson is keeping tabs on Australia’s coaches. It’s something that RA has been guilty of failing to do in the past but no longer, hopefully.

Berne is confident he’ll land a job and understands he’ll have to likely head overseas to find his next job, it’s just a matter of how he presents his CV: Record point score against the All Blacks, or a scoreless result at Eden Park?

Either way, Berne knows it’s not the first or last time his world will be flipped upside down.

After all, he’s in the coaching game.

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