Knuckling down

New Wallaby coach John Connolly can turn candyfloss into granite, according to former Bok coach Nick Mallett.

Having been fortunate to inherit a Stade Français pack coached by John ‘Knuckles’ Connolly, the new Wallaby coach, I can caution the Springbok forwards that this year the Wallabies will be a different forward unit from the mediocre mob we saw in the Tri-Nations and on the end-of-year tour. They will be tougher, simply because there will be a far greater emphasis on the first phases. To get the maximum out of any pack is Connolly’s greatest strength as a coach.

When I took over as Stade coach, I was hugely impressed by what he had done with the forwards. He is a meticulous coach who is conservative by nature but very pragmatic about what constitutes winning rugby.

I don’t think you will see a Wallaby team taking the ball through 15 phases of play, keeping the ball in hand 15m from their goal line and playing expansive rugby. It will be a more conservative Wallaby team but equally, I think, it will be a more dangerous one.

Just how much impact Connolly will have on the results column depends on the squad he selects, and it may just be that there aren’t better players in Australia than Eddie Jones selected in 2005. That we will know only once Connolly’s team plays its first Test.

Connolly, in his time at Stade, moulded the pack into one of the best in Europe. He drilled into them the importance of line-outs, scrums and restarts, and the strength of his coaching is that his players don’t make many mistakes and play very little risk rugby. He achieved similar success with the forwards at Bath, and it was a trademark of his era with the Reds.

His weakness, especially in the French context, was that he could not speak the language and his philosophy was in stark contrast with the natural flair of Frenchmen who did not want to play with restrictions. Connolly won’t have a language problem back in Australia, but he may still get some resistance from players who want to be empowered and want freedom in decision-making.

Connolly’s approach is radically different from that of Jones, and the Wallabies certainly won’t be a soft touch in the forward exchanges.

Connolly is a man who knows how to get results, even if his approach does not translate into the most popular style of play. He commands enormous respect from his players and he is a disciplinarian. We will soon find out if the Wallabies’ woes of 2005 were a clear-cut case of the forwards not being good enough or if the focus of the 2005 coaching staff was skewed because of Jones’s refusal to change a phase philosophy he believed could win Test matches.

I wrote last year that single-minded multiphase play, with no variation, does not win Test matches. And so it proved.

The Wallabies came unstuck against good defensive teams, who also punished them on the counterattack.

Jones’s Wallabies played high-risk rugby with no reward. Connolly’s teams won’t take that chance.

I’ve always rated Jones as a fine coach, and I’ve a similar respect for the quality of Connolly as a coach. Where they differ is in philosophy.

The Bok approach to the Wallabies is going to have to be different this year. I expect Connolly’s side to be dour to watch, but don’t confuse that with a lack of variety or success. Connolly’s teams have never thrilled the crowds, but invariably they’ve thrilled the commercial stakeholders because he does know how to win. And that’s something the Wallabies forgot how to do in 2005.

- The April issue of SA Rugby magazine is on sale Monday, 27 March.