Larkham pays for differing opinions
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.