The rise and rise of rugby’s ‘super’ coaches

Where does all the power and influence in world rugby lie? Increasingly, with an exclusive group of top international coaches.

This is an excerpt from The Bouncea Substack newsletter by Dylan Cleaver.

A learned, rugby-loving friend of mine believes the sport is, to its detriment, being slowly and systematically controlled by a cabal of “super” coaches who have become bigger than the game.

Having watched recent events, it’s easier to see where he’s coming from.

The move to appoint Eddie Jones coach of the Wallabies through to 2027 (and to oversee the Wallaroos’ program for the next World Cup cycle), makes sense on some levels, but it’s also a painful reflection on where rugby is at. As is parachuting Warren Gatland into the Wales role involuntarily vacated by Wayne Pivac.

There’s been a few people pimping for Dave Rennie this past week, including Stephen Donald who described him as the best coach he’s ever played under. That’s all well and good, but you could mount an equally compelling case that with a win record below 40 percent, Rugby Australia could have been accused of being asleep at the wheel if a “better option” came along and they didn’t take it – the exact same argument that has been used against NZ Rugby as Ian Foster’s record hovers around 70 percent.

I’d put short odds on the irascible Jones getting another payout before 2027 rolls along, but are the Wallabies a better chance of going deep in France later this year than they were a week ago? I’d say so, and that’s the metric that matters when we live in a rugby world that measures itself on a four-yearly basis.

More than that, what Jones’s reappointment reinforces is the idea, perpetuated by a coterie of coaches themselves, that you have to have coached international rugby to coach international rugby. It does not take a genius to decipher the circularity and self-interest of that theory.

It places untold power in the hands of a few who, aided and abetted by compliant administrators and media who slurp up their every word, retain their influence – even when their own careers have finished.

The more I think about the rugby world, the more I start to think my mate not only has an intriguing theory, but that he’s probably right. I mean, could a Brendon McCullum situation ever happen in rugby? Fat Chance.

If you want a starting point for when this “accepted wisdom” took root, you can look at Graham Henry’s departure to Wales, his subsequent return and all that followed.

He appointed Steve Hansen as assistant, who had followed Henry’s path to Wales and that pair, either through appointment or influence, have maintained a stranglehold on the All Blacks role that continues today. New Zealand Rugby is now coming up 16 years of the same coaching ethos controlling their flagship brand. Is it any wonder the All Blacks have started to look so stale?

It sent a signal to the rest of the world that certain coaches are an untouchable breed with a rugby IQ that remains incomprehensible for those who haven’t coached at the sharpest end of the game. It’s been consciously or subconsciously seized upon by men like Gatland, who is already agitating for the return of one of his disgraced favouritesJones, Rassie Erasmus (who, let’s face it, is still Springboks coach without the title) and even Joe Schmidt, who had a chance to change the direction of the All Blacks but went with the inside man.

It’s why outsiders without high-profile patronage find it so hard to get a look in, even ones with devastatingly good domestic records.

Rennie should take comfort in one key point: he’s been there and while he hasn’t quite done that, he’s coached a big team in test rugby and, yep, you can’t coach in international rugby unless you’ve coached in international rugby .


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