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Of Michael Foley and the folly of public reviews


John Eales

Waratahs coach Michael Foley has one of the toughest jobs in Australian sport.

Waratahs coach Michael Foley has one of the toughest jobs in Australian sport. Photo: Getty Images

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.

12 comments so far

  • A very reasoned analysis. Sometimes it takes an outsider, i.e. a Red, to see the facts. Like last year, despite scoring more tries than any other team they were still labelled as a boring team. Yes it has been a poor season but injuries and close losses have certainly been an issue. Media reports, that have on the whole been negative, don't help either. Foley should be given another year to see how he goes with a full roster.

    Date and time
    July 02, 2012, 12:57AM
    • The problem for the Waratahs is that those doing the reviewing are doing it through the rear orifice. There is no light at the end of the tunnel while players have an over inflated opinion of (a) their ability and (b) of what their role is. There role is not to try and run the organisation. Then there is the Sydney media, they continually forget that they are mere journalists and not corporate high flyers. They need to stick to writing about the game and leave the business side of it to those with the knowledge. Simon Poidevin needs to do a Rod McCall, take over the outfit, get rid of the dead wood in administration, get a Board that does not seek the limelight but has the teams best interests at heart, appoint a top flight CEO and give his coach the authority to run the team and the football dept. Oh, and remind the players they are payed to play football and train hard.

      Date and time
      July 02, 2012, 2:36AM
      • @Badjack. I tend to agree with most of what you say, but the way you say it implies a lot more inside knowledge than I have. Let me ask a couple of questions:
        1) Why do Tahs players play so much better in gold (except our excellent front row)?
        2) Why did we contract Crocky and Vicks?
        3) Why did Beale, Mowen and Burgess all leave?
        4) Why do replacement players so often seem to have little idea what is required of them?
        5) Why does Mumm get picked for the Tahs while Timani gets picked for the Wallabies?
        6) Why do the Tahs have two backs coaches and lose all semblance of backline cohesion?
        7) Why do the Tahs have no forwards coach?
        8) Why do the Tahs have a new defence coach and go from the best defensive record to letting in almost twice the number of tries?
        I am no supporter of Tahs Head Office, and I totally agree they need a massive cleanout. Perhaps we could get some better decision-making on the above at the same time?

        Date and time
        July 03, 2012, 1:30PM
      • @Chris, I have no inside knowledge, all I have is an understanding of how successful organisations operate. Most of your questions relate to, and can be solved by the culture and the environment that is created within the organisation. Until you can get the right people and have them sticking to their given roles success on and off the field will be virtually impossible.

        Date and time
        July 03, 2012, 4:26PM
    • Another great article from Captain Eales. Reading him is almost like reading The Prince by Nicolo Machiavelli. He seems to grasp all aspects of current rugby from the water boy to the suits in the tower. I wish he would turn his attention to politics and save us from this rabble we have to put up with. A Kiwi in Auckland told me once after Eales had put them to the sword once again- "mate-If Eales was a New Zealander he would have been made Prime Minister by now" and that was 10 years ago!

      Being a ex New South Welshman, I thought I would throw my 2 cents in on this issue of the Waratahs.(everyone else has!) My armchair coaching observation is so simple it staggers me with its sheer brilliance. Are you ready for this NSW?

      One of the forwards will be so peeved that they will play hero at the opposition 22 and knockon or get isolated.

      I can guarantee this will happen nearly every game every year.

      See you next Groundhog day chumps!

      Brisbane ex Sydney
      Date and time
      July 02, 2012, 12:44PM
      • Well written as usual. No idea how to "fix" the Tahs, but an excellent example of running rugby was the first half of Brumbies vs Force on the weekend. Pace and momentum, very few errors and a joy to watch.

        It appears that an inexperienced roster can keep the error rate down...

        Date and time
        July 02, 2012, 1:11PM
        • Badjack (2nd post) has summed it up perfectly and his suggested solution needs to be implemented.
          His call for Mr.Poidevin to take over, appoint a top flight professional CEO, and get the Board members fenced off from interfering with the Coaches running of the team, will see them winning the competition

          Silly pete
          Date and time
          July 02, 2012, 1:13PM
          • Well John how appropriate for you to NOT support frank and open reviews of coaches given your involvement in the last one of Robbie Deans which we all know will never see the light of day despite the five years of disasters and at best average performance he has visited upon the national side.

            To address just a couple of points in your article, yes Mackenzie was and remains the best ever Tahs Coach and he has indeed improved his execution since he was moved on. The question you fail to ask as so many others have, is why the Tahs play risk averse Rugby no matter who is coach or who is on the playing roster? Look to the board for the answer.

            Running Rugby is about perception, the Reds and Brumbies (this year) do not play running Rugby. They do in fact kick as much or more than the Tahs, the difference is in the execution and for years the execution of the Tahs has been sub par and their inability to close out games and being defeated in the second half of more than 50% of their losses this year speaks of a lack of fitness.

            Finally why shouldn't Foley be accountable for the recruitment of Elsom and Vickerman. Most reasonable commentators realised last year that they would play no or little part in the Tahs campaign. They took up squad places and funding for fit and "future" players. Then there is the failure to name a Captain in favour of a leadership group and then picking a captina outside of that group. By all means have a hidden review which just reinforces the fans views that the Tahs board is more interested in itself than the team and results.

            Date and time
            July 02, 2012, 3:09PM
            • Gnostic, may I take you to task regarding the performance of Deans. Where were the Wallabies placed in world rankings when he took over, I believe they are currently #2. Which national team will consistently beat the All Blacks enough to remove them from the #1 spot in the next 3 years. A little bit of thought before you make silly statements would help your credibility. While there is room for improvement in the Wallabies we should expect more from them but also be supportive of their #2 ranking.

              Date and time
              July 03, 2012, 8:33AM
          • Badjack, you miss the point of the article and my comment. I could argue effectively and successfully regarding Deans and the results, but that would further obfuscate the debate that is pertinent to this article. That of clarity and transparency in management and "reviews".

            Date and time
            July 03, 2012, 11:43AM

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