David Campese chats to Sport24

David Campese (Gallo Images)
David Campese (Gallo Images)

Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, Wallaby legend DAVID CAMPESE talks about the state of Australian rugby, why the Springbok backline talent is being wasted and previews Bledisloe 3 in Brisbane on Saturday.

Sport24 asked: Your take on New Zealand’s dominance in the Rugby Championship?

David Campese: The All Blacks deserved to win their fifth Rugby Championship title in six years. The reality is that they are so far ahead of the chasing pack. The other three sides are still struggling to come to grips with playing a style in their own countries that is going to benefit the national team. In contrast, the All Blacks’ style of rugby is entertaining, their skills are advanced, they do the basics well and they combine effectively as a unit. There is no question that the All Blacks are the best team in the business, but they are also aided and abetted by the Rugby Championship draw. By the time they played the Springboks at Newlands, the game was essentially a dead-rubber because the men in black had already clinched the title the previous week in Argentina. I agree South Africa played well in Cape Town and pushed New Zealand close, having been hammered 57-0 in Albany. Two great teams played a Test match that people are still talking about and I’m hoping to see that all the time. However, for me, the All Blacks didn’t play to their full potential, went through the motions and still won the game. At Test level, it doesn’t matter if you win by one point or 50 - a win is a win. The All Blacks must be applauded for getting the job done and ending the Rugby Championship undefeated. Since the home defeat to the All Blacks, the Boks have slipped to fifth in the world rankings and I don’t think they’re going to get any better. The bottom line is there are too many players plying their trade overseas and are earning so much money that they’re not interested in playing in South Africa.

Sport24 asked: Have you been impressed with the Springboks’ ball-in-hand approach?

David Campese: I heard Allister Coetzee talk earlier this week about what style of rugby he wants to play (a ball-in-hand approach) but, for my money, you can’t just turn around and play running rugby. It doesn’t work that way - you’ve got to have a system which supports that. In Elton Jantjies, the Springboks boast a flyhalf, who is a flair player and has got a good vision for the game. However, they have an inside and outside centre, who can’t pass the ball. The Springboks possess players that can finish (South Africa scored 17 tries during the Rugby Championship), but they don’t get the ball often enough. Yes, the Boks are effective hit-up merchants, they can take the ball up and get over the gain-line, but under pressure I feel that they can’t do anything else. Talking to people in the know, I believe Jan Serfontein and Jesse Kriel were fantastic schoolboy players, but just look at them now – the two midfielders have been moulded into nothing more than battering rams and they can neither see nor create opportunities. I think the problem within SA rugby is that no one is passing on knowledge. If SA rugby is going to improve, it’s also going to have to start at the grassroots. I was in a meeting last year where Louis Koen spoke and he gave a presentation in terms of the future of South African rugby. However, there was no club rugby at all - at the time it didn’t exist. Club rugby is a vital stepping stone to the next level and it’s where you learn and gain knowledge and experience. Moreover, there has been a big discussion about the Bok defence. They have wingers who fly in 15 metres from the sideline and then there is an opponent who scores in the corner. I don’t understand the system. It should be: If I’m a winger, I tackle my opposite number. However, it doesn’t seem to work that way within the Bok setup. Unfortunately, over the years we have had a lot of rugby league influence. The drop punt came in from league as did the defence system. The wingers are getting the ball when the team is running sideways, so it limits their attacking efficiency.

Sport24 asked: Is Damian McKenzie the kind of player the oval game needs more of?

David Campese: For sure. I think McKenzie is a fantastic player. I saw Breyton Paulse tweeted that if McKenzie was born in South Africa he would never have played for the Springboks due to his diminutive frame. I thought to myself: What’s being small got to do with it? McKenzie has the X-factor and creates opportunities on attack. There is actually no problem with smaller players but, in the modern game, coaches want bigger blokes who can run into a brick wall rather than look to find space. I only weighed 82kg when I was playing the game and why would I have wanted to run into a brick wall? My calling card was my skill and unpredictability. Sadly we have lost much of that in the modern game because it has become all about winning and we have moved away from the enjoyment factor. The game desperately needs players such as McKenzie, Beauden Barrett, Kurtley Beale and Nehe Milner-Skudder, who are able to entertain. During my playing days, every second or third player was like McKenzie, but today it’s the exception rather than the rule, which is a tremendous shame. We had a structure in place, but as a player if you saw something was on you wouldn’t need a second invitation. As a player, you can’t afford to be passive and just sit there and wait for someone else to do the work. I played the sport I loved and never changed my attitude. For me, it was not about the money, but all about having fun and trying to be the best player I could be.

Sport24 asked: Do you enjoy coaching children more so than seasoned professionals?

David Campese: I’m definitely more passionate about coaching younger kids than those at senior level. At least the younger kids have a smile on their dial and are willing to learn. Whereas, when a player gets to around 16 years of age, you can’t really change him in terms of the way he plays. For argument’s sake, if he’s accustomed to getting the ball and hitting it up, it’s very difficult to get him to carry the ball in two hands and then look to pass. I recently completed a three-day coaching clinic at Bahrain RFC. I tried to educate the fathers, who often double as the coaches. One of the biggest problems is a lack of knowledge as far as the game is concerned. The dads are assigned to coach the kids and have the best intentions, but they haven’t really played the game, so they don’t know the correct techniques. I saw Piers Morgan was canvassing opinion in a TV interview and some were saying children shouldn’t be allowed to tackle until they are 18 years old. That would be crazy and a disaster. Tackling should start very early on from around the ages of five or six – the younger, the better. As ex-professionals, we must show them how to tackle and they must repeat the technique. Coaches must watch and correct them. I played for Australia from 1982 to 1996, and I didn’t see anyone get knocked out because they put their head in the wrong position. In the modern era, we hardly ever see that happening. If you are able to pass on your knowledge as an ex-pro, people will have a better understanding of the game and it will prove beneficial for all the kids coming through.

Sport24 asked: How would you honestly appraise the current state of Australian rugby?

David Campese: I don’t agree with popular opinion that the current Wallaby team is one of the weakest we have ever had. However, Australian rugby is not as strong as it can be because the system is not working and we haven’t really put money into the growth of the game. Like South Africa, we were at the top, but have fallen behind. In my view, there has been no real vision in terms of where we are going in the future and, in order to find a lasting solution, you’ve got to start there. What you have done in the past is not going to help you in the future. We have some talented individuals, but we need them to play well as a collective. I don’t think fielding four Super Rugby teams is going to be beneficial for Australia. When we were at our strongest we had no more than three teams and all the good players played together. And the more you play together, the easier it is when you jump up another level. In order to fix Australian rugby, I believe we have to start at grassroots level and bring the players through. The ARU are now sitting down and looking at programs for the future. (Campese will be returning to Australia early next year, after residing in Durban for more than a decade, and has spoken to the ARU in regards to getting involved at grassroots, as he isn’t interested in coaching at the higher level). We need to equip the players with the skills in order to be unpredictable and give them the licence to have a go. The players also need to be afforded the opportunity to play Sevens. The key is to play as much rugby as you can, but most crucially learn to go out there and enjoy what they’re doing. They have to take to the field, experiment and try to be the best players possible. Players need to break free from the shackles and coaches, who say you can’t do this and that, are wrong. I’m not saying play without structure, but players need to be afforded the freedom of expression. Take McKenzie, for instance, I bet he is told what to do in terms of the All Blacks’ master plan, but if he sees something is on, he will give it a try.

Sport24 asked: Your view ahead of the 161st Test between the Wallabies and All Blacks?

David Campese: I faced the All Blacks 28 times in Bledisloe Cup matches and New Zealand are no different now to how they were. They are brutal and will come out all guns blazing in the first 20 minutes and will try to score as many points as possible. Australia will have to try and stem the tide and avoid conceding five minutes before half-time because the Kiwis will put the pressure on again. Michael Cheika’s men have to ensure that they keep Steve Hansen’s charges out before half-time and hold the All Blacks during the 10 minutes after the interval. I foresee the Wallabies playing with pride and passion and, while there are a number of competing sporting codes in Australia, there are many local children who dream of playing for the Wallabies. The men in gold and green will have to make their own luck on Saturday and that essentially comes down to teamwork. No one has beaten the All Blacks since the British and Irish Lions achieved that feat in the second Test in Wellington. The Wallabies must believe they can win against the All Blacks, having coming close in Dunedin earlier this term. Australia are going to have to try and anticipate what New Zealand are going to do and ensure that they do their job properly. The Wallabies have to go out and entertain their support base. And if they can play according to the style their coach wants them to and they work tirelessly for the full 80 minutes and refuse to give up, then we are set for a fantastic Test at Suncorp Stadium.

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