Rugby Union

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Of Michael Foley and the folly of public reviews

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It is amazing, but hardly surprising, that in a week where the NSW Waratahs were the only Australian franchise not playing they still captured most attention.

Most of that exposure focused on a season review, purportedly to determine whether or not Waratah coach Michael Foley would be anointed to continue his contract next season. Of course much of this was speculation with various perspectives portraying it somewhere along the spectrum between Foley presenting for his immediate livelihood to the less sinister, that of routine reflection.

Reviews are usually, though not always usefully, more prominent when teams are losing. The reality is that considered analysis is vital, whether winning or losing. The key is that it must be both focused and rational. But the problem is that often one man's sense is another's insanity.

Reviews also usually coincide with a call for transparency, but transparency shouldn't be a default for having to release all analysis and recommendations to the public.

The balance between understanding your business and exposing your entrails can be fine. As seen in the post-World Cup review of the English rugby team, broad exposure and public fossicking over an open carcass, though a popular pastime, is not particularly necessary, useful or palatable.

But unfortunately that is the world we live in, a world where being a coach is a lot like being a politician. Both jobs are largely thankless unless you hit the jackpot and win a title in sport, or luck out with the ham, cheese and tomato of politics – favourable economic winds, popularity and a couple of good decisions.


At least politicians only are up for contract renewal every three years, whereas a long-term view for a coach is round eight. While the most unappealing job in politics at the moment may be that of the PR jockeys for Craig Thomson or Peter Slipper, coaching the Waratahs is in some ways the most difficult in Australian rugby. In fact it's probably one of the hardest in Australian sport. Even Ewen McKenzie, Australia's most successful home-grown coach of the last decade, and an exceptionally successful Waratah mentor, wasn't immune. It seemed extraordinary at the time and even more so now.

There is no question, a review of the Waratahs' season is essential, as it is for every team in any competition. Did they sign the right players? Did they have the right strategy and execute poorly, or did they have the wrong strategy?

Who's a must on their bus for next season and who should get off at the next stop? Are they aligned on and off the field?

All valid questions, but questions which should be considered in the context of an inordinate injury toll, that seven out of 10 of their losses have been within one try, and that five of those were by one point or in the final play of the match. A couple of those losses fall the other way and the whole mood of the team and the coaching staff changes – imbued with confidence and belief, the world can look colourful again.

What is not helpful for the Tahs is their critics' obsession with, and often their lack of understanding of, what constitutes running rugby.

Being subjective by nature, running rugby is as tricky to perfect as it is to describe in hard metrics, but it is influenced by attitude and excellence. One component of attitude is confidence and the Waratahs have played with little of that; another is decision-making, which can take time to develop and mature. More destructively, their error rate has retarded their running ambitions by constipating their momentum. An inexperienced roster has influenced all these variables.

It seems that Foley will rightly be given time to prove his coaching worth. To discard him after just one season would be exceptionally harsh, especially considering the closeness of his team's losses and the particularly high injury toll he has had to deal with.

Meanwhile on the field, where sport is so much more fun, the Brumbies and the Reds, the only Australian teams still in contention, had predictable victories over the Force and Rebels respectively. The Brumbies' win means just five more competition points will guarantee them their conference victory and automatic entry to the play-offs.

And the Reds' keeps them in strong contention. But this comp is far from over, with many teams capable of winding their way into the top six in the last two weeks of fixtures.

Sport's on-field permutations are so much more interesting than those that happen off it.