Rugby Australia needs drastic restructure if Wallabies are to improve

Rugby Australia must get its priorities right and undergo a dramatic restructure before it has any chance of reviving an ailing code, according to one of this country's most experienced sporting administrators.

Former NSW Waratahs, Western Force and Australian Rugby Union Players' Association chief executive Greg Harris contacted ESPN this week because of his deep concerns about rugby's wayward direction; the latest sad chapter being another dismal Bledisloe Cup campaign that sees Wallabies coach Michael Cheika's position under threat.

ESPN can also reveal Cheika is not as safe as Rugby Australia officials are publicly making out, and Wallabies staff changes are inevitable.

Harris's credentials span three football codes, being chairman of selectors at the Sydney Swans AFL club, a first-grade rugby league player with Cronulla Sutherland, chairman of the NRL education and welfare committee, while he made Sydney University a sporting powerhouse during a lengthy reign as its successful executive director.

His contact with senior rugby administrators is strong and extensive, resulting from a six-year period that ended in 2016, heading either RUPA or the Waratahs.

Harris still finds it hard to comprehend what he had to deal with.

If the Wallabies wants to lift themselves from a parlous fifth world ranking, Harris believes Rugby Australia must dismantle its coaching structure, and follow the AFL example of introducing a powerful overseer, whom the head coach reports to. He added that dreadful administration of the game has led to the current dramas.

"I do have some empathy for Cheika," Harris told ESPN.

"He can only play the cards he has been dealt with. The playing stocks are bare. Because of that he is playing far too many youngsters, who haven't played together to form a competitive team against the best in the world.

"Compare the number of Super Rugby and Test matches which the Wallabies and All Blacks have amassed. It's lambs versus lions stuff. It's not an easy task for any coach. But the system is broken as much as the coach and his entourage are struggling.

"The structure is the problem. Rugby Australia needs a Director of Rugby who the coach and his crew are accountable to. They need a Neil Balme-type of appointment."

Balme, the general manager of football at the Richmond Football Club in the AFL, is widely credited as being a major factor in the Tigers winning the 2017 premiership, breaking a 37-year drought. Balme left Collingwood in late 2016 to go to Richmond.

"But the real culprits who have gone untouched as those who sowed the seeds of the program many years ago," Harris said.

"The system in Australia is broken. After the 2003 World Cup, the Kiwis restructured their rugby program so that it was all centred around the All Blacks. They did their homework, including adopting two key concepts which Rugby Australia has not implemented -- STRATEGY and CULTURE."

Harris said the past ARU regime of Michael Hawker as chairman and Bill Pulver as chief executive and current combination of Cameron Clyne and Raelene Castle were similar in one respect.

"From Hawker to Pulver to Clyne to Castle... there is no strategy. RUPA has been prepared to discuss substantial changes to player engagement, including national contracting and a draft system, but it was not even raised by successive Rugby Australia administrations."

It was imperative Rugby Australia CEOs 'look after Australian interests first and foremost in international negotiations.'

In that area, Harris believed Pulver who 'wanted to be fair to all... was disastrous for the local game', while he is concerned with Castle's close relationship with her 'mentor' -- the New Zealand Rugby Union chief executive Steve Tew. Castle has regularly approached Tew for advice.

"There has to be an Australian first and foremost policy. Also administrators cannot be fans. This is a business, after all," Harris said.

"The two major assets rugby has in Australia are the school system (mainly private) and the senior district clubs, who are all segregated and disenfranchised from Rugby Australia," Harris said.

"As the first development manager in the AFL in Sydney in 1986-87, I know the intrusion of AFL into the private school sector has been a generational operation, which is only beginning to now bear fruit. Rugby administrators must understand that the competition for elite athletes and commercial revenues in Australia is far greater than international competitors. There are three major collision sports in Australia, which provides unique challenges.

"Australian rugby also sadly has a culture more attuned to personal gain. It's more about dollars in player contracts than team achievement. That is especially the case when you compare Australia to the All Blacks. This has to change and will only do so with drastic changes to player contracting and the competition structures.

"The All Blacks represent all of New Zealand. The Wallabies only represent a percentage of the Australian public, and this is decreasing as the results worsen. And the Australian sporting public have other football options which they can and are gravitating to in their droves."

While Castle this week stated Cheika's position was safe until next year's World Cup, ESPN has been told by Rugby Australia sources that several influential officials are 'eager' for him to depart beforehand.

Apart from his dismal 50 percent Test success rate, which drops to just 41 per cent for internationals after the last World Cup, some Rugby Australia officials are dismayed by Cheika's belligerent attitude when he is under pressure. There are also concerns he has become such a dominant figure at Rugby Australia that in the words of one official 'he always gets his way...which is not always the right way.'

During Pulver's reign, Cheika was clearly the boss. Cheika's dogmatic, aggressive manner has alienated some, including players.

However what is easing the tension on Cheika somewhat is that due to Rugby Australia's shaky financial position they may not be able to pay him out early. Cheika is on a substantial salary package.

Rugby Australia has in recent weeks talked to at least two other coaching candidates, while several others, including two highly capable and successful New Zealand coaches, have shown interest in the position. An interim Wallabies coach is also being considered.

Immediate changes to the Wallabies structure are scheduled to include the introduction of an independent selector to provide a differing view to Cheika. Cheika has not distinguished himself as a selector during his four years in the position, often confusing players with his 'chopping and changing' of personnel.

Questions have been asked about several recent Wallabies team management decisions, including the wisdom of spending a week on an island resort off Auckland before last weekend's Test, and the vast expense involved in funding expanding Wallabies training squads.

Due to the All Blacks scoring 12 tries in the two Bledisloe Cup Tests, Wallabies defensive coach Nathan Grey's position is under scrutiny.