SYDNEY (Reuters) - Rugby Australia have responded to their worst test campaign in 60 years by appointing Scott Johnson as Director of Rugby over retained head coach Michael Cheika and instituting a national selection panel to choose the team.
Cheika has been under intense pressure after the Wallabies won just four of 13 tests and slumped to sixth in the world rankings in a year when coaches would be looking to set out their stall ahead of next year’s Rugby World Cup in Japan.
A former Australia A, United States and caretaker Wales and Scotland coach, Johnson has been Director of Rugby at Scotland Rugby since 2013 and overseen an improvement in the fortunes of the Scottish game.
The 56-year-old was Wallabies attack coach at the 2007 World Cup under John Connolly but was released in a clearout of the coaching staff after Australia lost to England in the quarter-finals. He will take up his new position in March.
“We are very pleased to have retained the services of Scott Johnson, who has built a strong reputation in the international rugby landscape over more than decade,” RA chief executive Raelene Castle told a news conference.
“Since taking over as Director of Rugby in Scotland, the national team has climbed to its highest ever world ranking of fifth.
“We are confident Michael is the right man to lead the Wallabies to the World Cup and the appointment of Scott Johnson will support Michael and his coaching team as they prepare for the tournament in Japan next September.”
Cheika, who will be part of the selection panel with his new boss and an independent selector, welcomed Johnson’s appointment in a RA statement.
“It’s a great move for Australian rugby and I know it will prove to be the best long-term structure for the game in this country,” he was quoted as saying.
“I’m looking forward to working with Scott and finishing the work that I started by making Australians proud of our performance.”
Castle also announced an “aligned national high performance model” under which Australia’s four Super Rugby teams will work more closely with national team coaches as happens in New Zealand and Ireland, the top two nations in the world rankings.
RA will also set up a “fighting fund” to ensure that top young talent already in the game is not lost to rugby league and also to attract young players from other codes.
Monday’s announcements mean that Cheika survives to take the twice-world champions to a second World Cup tournament after leading them to the final in 2015 a year after taking over from Ewen McKenzie.
The 51-year-old, named World Rugby Coach of the Year in 2015, has already confirmed that he will leave the post after next year’s tournament.
There had been some suggestions that if Cheika survived, he would be pressured to dump his assistant coaches Stephen Larkham (attack), Nathan Grey (defence) and Simon Raiwalui (forwards).
Cheika, however, was in a very strong position when he negotiated his contract, which was reported to contain clauses that allowed him control of such appointments - something his predecessor McKenzie was not afforded.
Reporting by Nick Mulvenney; Editing by Greg Stutchbury