‘Open minded’: Waugh backs foreign Wallabies coach – but with one non-negotiable


As Phil Waugh confirmed the Wallabies’ first grand slam tour since 2016, the Rugby Australia chief executive left the door open for a foreigner to become the next Australian coach.

Waugh’s comments come as he prepares to make his “biggest” decision on the direction of the game, as RA looks to announce their director of high-performance over the next week.

In a wide-ranging interview on the Big Sports Breakfast radio show, Waugh also delivered a blunt appraisal of Australia’s Super Rugby franchises, saying “we’ve been too weak for too long” and “everything is on the table” with regards to how they improve the standing of the Wallabies.


The festive season might be quickly coming up, but RA has several big appointments to make over the coming weeks and indeed months.

Rugby Australia CEO Phil Waugh speaks to the media on October 02, 2023 in Saint-Etienne, France. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Waugh described his first six months in the role as “brutal”.

“I do joke that I got my head belted so much when I was playing that I missed it so much that I would go into sports administration. At least when I played it, I knew that the kicks would be coming from the opposition,” he quipped. “It’s been an interesting ride, but certainly plenty to do.” 

First on the Christmas list is landing a new director of high-performance, who will be, among other things, tasked with appointing the Wallabies’ next head coach.

With Ireland’s performance director David Nucifora unavailable until July, The Roar understands World Rugby’s high-performance manager Peter Horne is a strong contender. Harlequins director of rugby Billy Millard, who coached Waugh at Sydney University, is also firmly in the mix.

“The director of high performance will be responsible for recruiting the head coach. It’s a big job. It’s the biggest job on my leadership team in terms of the impact it has on the general sentiment around the game,” Waugh said.

Rugby Australia is pleased with the interest surrounding the national coaching role, with a strong list of local and foreign candidates building.

The Roar understands Australians Stephen Larkham, Dan McKellar and Andy Friend are all interested in the role, while foreigners Joe Schmidt and Ian Foster are also eyeing the role.

Leicester Tigers’ Head Coach Dan McKellar during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby match between Bristol Bears and Leicester Tigers at Ashton Gate on October 13, 2023 in Bristol, England. (Photo by Bob Bradford – CameraSport via Getty Images)

The departure of former RA chairman Hamish McLennan has given confidence to several of the candidates, including the foreign coaches, that their heads won’t be on the chopping block if results immediately don’t go their way.

New Zealander Dave Rennie was sacked in mid-January after winning at just 38 per cent in his three years in charge of the Wallabies. He was the second Kiwi after Robbie Deans to coach the Wallabies.

While RA’s preference is for a local national coach, Waugh said he was open to the role being filled by an overseas candidate.

“I think we need to build out a coaching structure that plays in the Australian way,” he said.

“I genuinely believe our competitive advantage in sport is being Australian, so we need to ensure there’s a really strong Australian flavour within the coaching structure. Whether that includes the head coach or not is less relevant, it’s around the culture installed across the broader coaching group.

“We’re really open-minded around whether the coach is an Australian or a foreigner, as long as the broader coaching environment is very Australian.” 

RA also must appoint a new Wallaroos head coach in the coming months, with former Olympian turned high-performance guru Jaime Fernandez to play a role in the appointment.

While the men’s side of the professional arm has struggled in recent years, Waugh said the strength of the women’s sevens program, who claimed a fourth straight Dubai Sevens tournament over the weekend, as well as the improved showing of the Wallaroos indicated that there were some genuine green shoots.

“We saw the final, it was 19-all and then [Maddison] Levi scores at the end to win 26-19. Four on the trot in Dubai,” Waugh said.

“If you think about the runway now through to the Olympics in Paris in July, it’s exciting.

“The women’s game has grown so much, we also had the Wallaroos defeat France and Wales in the WXV1 [tournament].

“[There’s] a lot of good things happening across the game. We’ve got a lot to do around the Wallaby environment, but in terms of our other formats and the participation and growth in the women’s game, it’s exciting.”

Since returning to Australia from France in late October, Waugh has been busy getting across the nation speaking to stakeholders and engaging with its member unions.

That has continued since the departure of McLennan, whose leadership had lost the confidence of stakeholders.

Waugh, who has been pushing the need to align and integrate their high-performance systems, said “there’s never been a greater need for change across the system” and added that “everyone’s got the appetite for change”.

“It’s just a matter of what level of change occurs between each Super Rugby club,” Waugh said.

“But I do think there’s been a material shift in the way people are thinking about change and about alignment across the high-performance structures.”

Put to him that the Super Rugby competition had lost the hearts and minds of fans, Waugh said the tournament was still strong but acknowledged that Australia’s franchises needed to lift their game to bring back interest.

“I still think Super Rugby, when it’s played well and we’re competitive, is still a really attractive game to watch,” he said.

“The problem is we’ve been less than competitive for too long.

“Next year, the start’s going to be really important. How do we lay the platform?

“The tournament’s still strong when we’re competitive, but we’ve been too weak for too long.

“Part of the high-performance alignment is [helping] that performance in what we’re doing in Super Rugby so that it flows through to the Wallabies.”

Asked whether the number of franchises would change, Waugh said the structure of the competition needed to ensure that the Wallabies were “set up for success”.

“We’ve got five teams and we’re committed to five teams,” the former Waratahs captain said.

“I think then it’s about how creative we get in filling those five teams to ensure we’ve got five competitive teams.

“Everything is on the table in terms of the growth of the Wallabies performances and what will feed through to us being number one or two in the world.”

Meanwhile, Waugh confirmed the Wallabies would go on their first grand slam tour of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland since 2016.

He said the tour, which falls less than a year before the Lions travel down under, would be attractive to players looking to play for the Wallabies, including rugby-bound Joseph Suaalii.

“I think Joseph comes across to rugby in November and we’ve got the grand slam tour,” Waugh said.

“I played for the Wallabies for a decade and never got the opportunity to play in a grand slam tour … it’s a special tour, so if he’s performing well enough and there’s a position available in that squad to go and conquer the grand slam in the UK and then through to the series to the Lions and the home World Cup, I think it’s a really exciting time for any player to be involved in Australian rugby.”

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