Larkham pays for dif­fer­ing opin­ions

The Australian - - SPORT - WAYNE SMITH

Rugby Aus­tralia fi­nally plucked up the courage yes­ter­day to move on one of the game’s se­nior roy­als, sack­ing Steve Larkham as Wal­la­bies at­tack coach just eight months out from the World Cup.

It would not be too great an ex­ag­ger­a­tion to sug­gest that “Gre­gan and Larkham” are rugby’s equiv­a­lent of “Lillee and Thommo” or “Laver and Rose­wall” — epic con­trib­u­tors to some of the most mem­o­rable achieve­ments in Aus­tralian sport­ing his­tory. But where Larkham melded har­mo­niously with halves part­ner Ge­orge Gre­gan through two World Cup fi­nals, win­ning in 1999 and los­ing in ex­tra time in 2003, he wasn’t able to strike up a work­ing re­la­tion­ship with his boss, Wal­la­bies head coach Michael Cheika.

There was talk al­most a year ago that Cheika felt Larkham wasn’t work­ing out as his at­tack coach but it took un­til yes­ter­day for their part­ner­ship to be for­mally dis­solved. Larkham was stood down from his as­sis­tant coach­ing role and shuf­fled across to the hastily cre­ated po­si­tion of na­tional high per­for­mance coach ad­viser.

He will work on coach men­tor­ing, coach­ing and skills devel­op­ment across the sevens pro­gram, the ju­nior Wal­la­bies, the un­der-20 state acad­e­mies and the Wal­la­roos. In­deed, Larkham will be in­volved in just about ev­ery na­tional pro­gram, save for the one he wanted most.

As so­lu­tions go, it was el­e­gantly sim­ple — not! Rugby Aus­tralia yes­ter­day is­sued a press re­lease in which Larkham was al­lowed to put his case. If the fol­low­ing lan­guage is what was re­leased pub­licly, one can only imag­ine what was said be­hind closed doors: “We (he and Cheika) have dif­fer­ences in at­tack­ing strat­egy and over­all game phi­los­o­phy. We couldn’t agree on th­ese key points and it is in the best in­ter­est of the team that they re­ceive clear and con­sis­tent mes­sages from their coaches.

“I am ob­vi­ously dis­ap­pointed with this out­come as I had cho­sen to pur­sue the ex­pe­ri­ence of tak­ing the Wal­la­bies through to the World Cup. How­ever, I am pleased to be able to con­tinue coach­ing and con­tribut­ing to Aus­tralian rugby in this new role.”

It’s not too long a bow to sug­gest that the newly-ap­pointed na­tional high per­for­mance coach ad­viser — and how does Larkham’s role work with Rod Kafer’s job of be­ing in charge of the elite coach­ing devel­op­ment pro­gram? — is not on speak­ing terms with the Wal­la­bies coach. Still, RA will be hop­ing Larkham’s po­si­tion will quickly be

made re­dun­dant if and when he se­cures a head coach­ing ap­point­ment else­where, while Cheilka has in­di­cated that he will not be seek­ing to con­tinue in his role un­less Aus­tralia win the World Cup.

It all seemed so sweet when Larkham and Nathan Grey and Mario Ledesma came to­gether to pro­vide the back-up coach­ing fire­power that Cheika fun­nelled into the Wal­la­bies in 2015, tak­ing them through to the World Cup fi­nal. This al­most-en­chanted cam­paign had such a won­der­fully spon­ta­neous feel to it, with ev­ery­thing thrown to­gether hastily in the wake of Ewen McKen­zie’s abrupt de­par­ture in 2014. Yet all the pieces fell into place.

Since then, how­ever, the magic has soured. Since 2016, Aus­tralia have played 42 Tests for only 17 wins. The Wal­la­bies have lost 11 of their last 15 in­ter­na­tion­als and Cheika’s win­ning record has slumped to 48.3 per cent, the low­est of any Aus­tralian coach dur­ing the pro­fes­sional era.

The board of Rugby Aus­tralia sat in judg­ment on the Wal­la­bies in De­cem­ber, soon af­ter they had re­turned from their spring tour with losses to New Zealand, Wales and Eng­land, soft­ened not at all by a win over lowly Italy.

All in­di­ca­tions were that Cheika him­self was go­ing to be sacked 24 hours be­fore the vote was taken. But then the mood changed, with a cou­ple of board mem­bers play­ing a de­ci­sive role in sav­ing him. An­other two months were al­lowed to elapse with no ac­tion on his coach­ing staff. Even when the Wal­la­bies went into camp last month in Syd­ney and Larkham was not in­vited to at­tend, the sit­u­a­tion still dragged on an­other month.

“I think when you have two coaches with great ex­pe­ri­ence and depth of knowl­edge, you want to try to work those things out,” RA chief ex­ec­u­tive Rae­lene Cas­tle ex­plained.

“You don’t want ev­ery­one to agree all the time. You need chal­lenge and dif­fer­ences of opin­ion. But ul­ti­mately they didn’t feel that the core el­e­ments of the Wal­la­bies at­tack were aligned and that’s why they be­lieved … Michael be­lieved … it was the right thing for Stephen to move on.”

She felt for Larkham: “It’s been dif­fi­cult. It’s been dif­fi­cult for him per­son­ally and pro­fes­sion­ally.”

Cas­tle in­sisted he still could be con­sid­ered for the Wal­la­bies head coach­ing job, although the wounds may still be too raw in Novem­ber. Mean­while, Cheika and direc­tor of rugby Scott John­son will con­fer on who will take over the role as at­tack coach. De­fence coach Grey and for­ward boss Si­mon Rai­walui will con­tinue on the Wal­la­bies staff, but head of ath­letic prepa­ra­tion Hayden Masters, who came across from the Waratahs to the Wal­la­bies un­der Cheika four years ago, has re­signed.

Stephen Larkham

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