Rugby Championship

John Connolly chats to Sport24

2017-09-29 09:45
John Connolly (Getty Images)

Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, ex-Wallaby coach JOHN CONNOLLY discusses the state of Australian rugby, which Springbok backs have piqued his interest and previews the Test in Bloemfontein on Saturday.

Sport24 asked: How would you assess the state of Wallaby and Springbok rugby?

John Connolly: Both teams have a bit to improve on, haven’t they? Tactically and coaching-wise, they left a lot to be desired two weeks ago. Australia probably had as poor a first half against Argentina in Canberra as we have seen for a long time. Australia played dumb rugby in the first 40 minutes. They gave the Pumas field position and made no attempt to play at their end of the field. Credit to the Wallabies for winning the game 45-20, after trailing by three points at half time, but I’m not sure if the hosts improved in the second half or if the visitors dropped off. Meanwhile, South Africa’s players failed to produce against New Zealand. Uncharacteristically for South Africa, the line-out went to pieces and they were beaten by a very good side that capitalised on their inability to control the ball. We know against New Zealand sides that every mistake you make, you pay very dearly for, and the Springboks just made too many. To be fair, I thought the Boks had some fairly good passages of continuity against the All Blacks, but then they would make a silly mistake. I believe there is plenty of work to be done by both teams off the field to implement the plan on the field. However, despite the heaviest defeat in their history, it’s not all doom and gloom for Springbok rugby. The Boks have some great young players in the mix and their under-20s have enjoyed success over the last few years. I’ve noticed that Jesse Kriel is a wonderful player. However, I don’t think that he has developed anywhere near the extent he should have over the last couple of years and, truth be told, he hasn’t been utilised properly. The 23-year-old is a player who I rate highly, if used wisely.

Sport24 asked: Francois Louw has been recalled by the Boks. Was it a wise move?

John Connolly: The breakdown was an area of concern for South Africa against New Zealand and, in the injury-enforced absence of Jaco Kriel, Louw’s inclusion makes sense. We all know Louw is a very good player, but he has not been part of the Springbok squad this season until now and he last played for South Africa in October 2016. I coached in the UK for a number of years and it’s a tough call to pull someone out of the Premiership campaign and straight into a Test match. It will prove a challenge for the player who plies his trade at Bath, but he has experience from which to draw as 52-cap Test veteran. The Australian back-row of Sean McMahon, Michael Hooper and Jack Dempsey are not overly strong over the ball, and the good news for South Africa is that Louw will probably come into his own on Saturday and beat the visitors over the ball in Bloemfontein. Australia no longer have a George Smith or David Pocock type of player, who will stick to the ball at the breakdown like a clam on a rock. Hooper is more or less a blindside that plays at openside, while McMahon and Dempsey play more of a confrontational and running game. South Africa will see this Test match as an opportunity in the forwards and Louw is set to prove influential on his return to the national side.

Sport24 asked: Do you expect Australia to target South Africa’s rejigged back three?

John Connolly: The back three has been a weak point for the Boks, but in order to exploit it you have to be able kick effectively to put the triumvirate under sufficient pressure. Australia’s tactical kicking has been poor, and they possess a fullback in Israel Folau that doesn’t kick particularly well or at all. The Wallaby wingers are also not renowned kickers. While scrumhalf Will Genia is a wonderful player, he is not great at putting up the high ball. As such, so much depends on flyhalf Bernard Foley. However, the problem with Foley is that he is not a long kicker of the ball. For argument’s sake, he is not the type of player that can kick the ball from his 22 to the opposition’s 22. In order to take advantage of South Africa’s relatively inexperienced back three at Test level, you need to apply a pressure game with the boot and the bottom line is that it’s not a real strength of this Wallaby team.

Sport24 asked: Your take on Super Rugby’s restructure and the axing of the Force?

John Connolly: We had to restructure. I don’t think anyone adapted to the previous format. The public want to see one table and the organisers must make it easy to follow. I believe five teams in New Zealand, four in Australia and four in South Africa is a good mix. In our part of the world, competing against other sporting codes, we need a very high standard of rugby and I think we will get that out of the restructured competition. Australian rugby has obviously handled the Western Force situation very poorly. In my view, the ARU clearly wanted to get rid of the Force and save the Brumbies. My personal feeling is that the core rugby spots in Australia are Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney, and that is where the four Australian Super Rugby franchises should be housed. It would have made sense to have merged the Rebels and Brumbies and formed the Melbourne Brumbies and kept the Perth-based franchise intact. The powers that be got it terribly wrong and the ARU are under tremendous pressure because of said decision. The view of most people is that it was a horrible day for Australian rugby and I agree with Nathan Sharpe, who asked: “How did we get this so bloody wrong?” It’s a great shame that the Force will no longer be competing in Super Rugby. Australian rugby has many challenges to deal with in terms of administration, our Super Rugby teams underachieving and the Wallabies not performing particularly well. Somewhere we have to find some champion players because in order to be a successful team you need champion players. We really need some youngsters to step up over the next few years for the sake of Australian rugby.

Sport24 asked: Over the years you coached some quality players. Who stand out?

John Connolly: There were many great Australian players I was fortunate to be involved with. The likes of Michael Lynagh, John Eales, David Wilson, Tim Horan, Jason Little and Chris Latham come to mind, but the list goes on. In the later years, I coached George Gregan and Stephen Larkham, which was probably as good a halfback combination Australia has ever had in our history. At the time, our structures and the quality of our development was very good and the standard of our coaching was extremely strong. Out of that foundation came many of the great players that have graced the field for Australia. I was lucky enough to have coached during a golden generation of Australian rugby and at the time of my appointment as Wallaby head coach in early 2006, I was proud of the fact that in 15 years at the top, I’d mentored more than 50 players who had gone on to play Test match rugby.

Sport24 asked: Are Michael Cheika and Allister Coetzee under unwarranted pressure?

John Connolly: I don’t believe so. When you are a national coach you are always under pressure. The key to it is managing that pressure and making sure that you have the best possible coaches and support staff working hand-in-hand with the players. There are many challenges that come with man-management in the job at international level, but it’s also an incredibly exciting time as well. I was fortunate enough that I came from the amateur era and then went into the professional realm, so I had an advantage. I infused the old-school values at times with modern coaching methodologies. Cheika and Coetzee are both experienced coaches and the latter was always going to be smarter in the second year of his reign. He has a good coaching team around him which is important, but the issues facing South African rugby are a challenge. I don’t think the rest of the world understands the unique issues the national coach has at times in managing the Springboks. From the outside, we only relate to the win-loss record, which doesn’t tell the whole story. We can’t deny that last year was incredibly disappointing for the Springboks and, like Cheika, Coetzee is striving to find consistency in selection, which will hopefully translate into consistency in terms of performance. The Springboks are ranked third in the world, so they are going okay in spite of the sub-standard performance against the All Blacks in Albany. They have got a young side and I feel they are a team on the way up.

Sport24 asked: How do you see the 85th Test between the Boks and Wallabies going?

John Connolly: It will be an interesting watch in Bloemfontein. Some have suggested that it will be a battle of South Africa’s forwards against Australia’s backs, but I’m a great fan of a few of the young South African backs at the moment. Elton Jantjies has found better form. I didn’t think he would ever make it back in the Test arena, but he did and he has done really well. I reckon the return of his regular halfback partner, Ross Cronjé, will make a big difference. Whoever wins the battle of the halfbacks will go some way to deciding the outcome. The nines and tens are even more crucial than they were a few years ago. In the multi-phase game, where you can go 10, 11 or 12 phases, play is often dictated to by the nines and tens. I have no doubt that Australia will try to beat the Springboks with ball in hand. At the moment for Australia so much depends on Kurtley Beale. Most of the Wallabies’ ingenuity comes down to Beale, and they have become very depend on him. As the modern game is built on multi-phase play, it’s about creating one-on-ones. In order to capitalise on chances, you need to possess the skillset. By and large, the Boks play a very confrontational game and I would like to see more offloads and creativity on attack from them. It will be an interesting tactical battle and it will be instructive to see what approach both coaches take into the Test match. What either side cannot afford to do is hand easy points to the opposition owing to unforced errors. Traditionally, what separates tight games are unforced errors, silly mistakes and poor option-taking.

Previous Q&A chats:

Tonderai Chavhanga

Pierre Spies

Alistair Hargreaves

John Hart

Alan Solomons

John Mitchell

Sean Fitzpatrick

Shaun Treeby

Matt Stevens

Ryan Sandes

Rory Kockott

Serge Betsen

Gary Gold

Scott Spedding

CJ Stander

Neil de Kock

Lionel Cronje

Neil Powell

Beast Mtawarira

Huw Jones

Adriaan Strauss

Jaque Fourie

Franco Smith

Steven Kitshoff

Francois Venter

Bakkies Botha

Rohan Janse van Rensburg

Read more on:    springboks  |  wallabies  |  rugby championship  |  rugby


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