Dan McKellar is considering an approach from Rugby Australia to become the Wallabies forwards coach but, for the sake of his club and the national team he should stay right where he is – at least for now. The Brumbies head coach has developed the best-performed Australian Super Rugby team over the past year or so and to take him out of Canberra now would be potentially harmful to the club, who have struggled to draw crowds.
Perhaps more importantly, though, McKellar would make a greater contribution to the Wallabies by remaining in Canberra and preparing Brumbies players for Test rugby. If the Wallabies are to perform well they need at least one, if not two, strong-performing domestic teams to develop players for the national side.
On one hand it seems crazy not to have someone of McKellar’s ability involved with the Wallabies, but that is to overlook the extremely important contribution he is already making to the national cause. How Super Rugby players arrive at Wallabies camp is just as important as what they do under the guidance of the national team’s coaching staff, particularly in relation to fitness and skills.
The Brumbies have the luxury of two coaches of head-coach calibre – McKellar and highly regarded forwards coach Laurie Fisher, a former head coach of the club. You could argue that if McKellar left the Brumbies would still be in good hands, but that does not mean they would necessarily perform as well without McKellar.
Rugby Australia has had plenty of time to find a forwards coach to work under the Wallabies’ new head coach, Dave Rennie. There is no excuse for raiding a Super Rugby franchise. New Zealand do not pinch club head coaches for the All Blacks assistant coaching jobs. They appreciate the value of having, for example, Scott Robertson at the Crusaders and how his coaching at that level indirectly benefits the national team.
There has been speculation Rennie wanted to recruit fellow New Zealander Neil Barnes from the Chiefs to be the Wallabies forwards coach. If that was the case, why was Barnes not appointed? Was it because there would be too many Kiwis on the coaching staff? Rugby Australia believes the next Wallabies coach should be an Australian. It has been reported that if McKellar accepted the Wallabies forwards role he would be groomed to succeed Rennie in the top job.
That is certainly a juicy carrot to dangle in front of an ambitious young coach, but McKellar would be wise to remember what happened to Stephen Larkham, who was drafted from the Brumbies to the Wallabies as attack coach and then removed before the World Cup last year. Significantly, Larkham had been touted as Michael Cheika’s heir apparent.
If there are any nods or winks about the job McKellar should get it in writing, but that is unlikely to happen. For a start, no one knows how long Rennie will last. If he is successful he will be there as long as he wants. If not he could have a brief tenure and his assistants could go with him, as happened to Cheika’s staff after the 2019 World Cup.
And who knows who will be in charge of Australian rugby in four years’ time. Rugby Australia is about to appoint a new chairman, apparently the Sydney University figurehead David Mortimer, and the board is about to get a shake-up. Will Raelene Castle still be the chief executive in four years? Those who govern the game will want to appoint their own coach, not someone else’s nominee.
If McKellar is doing such a good job at the Brumbies, he should be allowed to finish it. He has not achieved anything yet, but if he has the potential to turn the Brumbies into Super Rugby title contenders he should be encouraged to do so rather than be poached as soon as the team enjoy a glimmer of success.
The Brumbies finished 10th when McKellar succeeded Larkham in 2018, but he guided them to the Australian conference title and a semi-final appearance last year. So far this season they are Australia’s best side. If he can take them further in the next few years that will add value to the Wallabies and put him in a strong position to take over the national side.
It has been suggested McKellar could juggle the Brumbies and Wallabies jobs before joining the national side full-time, but both Cheika and Larkham tried that with the Waratahs and Brumbies respectively and claimed it was too demanding.
McKellar could consult the Wallabies forwards on certain aspects of play and make guest coaching appearances at training, but he is more valuable to the national program where he is. If he is good enough to coach the Wallabies in the future, hopefully his time will come, but the work he is doing now – not just for the Brumbies, but for Australian rugby – is too important to sacrifice at the altar of a higher authority.