Exclusives: Stephen Larkham says he “regretted” moving into the Wallabies program full-time but believes he is a “better coach” for having endured the highs and lows of international coaching as he prepares to take over the Brumbies once more.
Larkham, the World Cup-winning Wallaby and Australian great, returned home to Canberra a month ago after three eye-opening years coaching in Ireland.
His return home was as innocuous as his departure, having flown off into the sunset whilst the Wallabies continued to move forward without him ahead of the 2019 World Cup.
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Just as he ghosted through defenses as a player, Larkham left Australian rugby without a trace after being savagely cut adrift by Wallabies coach Michael Cheika at the end of 2018.
His exit from the Wallabies came just a year after he had chosen to jump on board Cheika’s ticket full-time, which meant he was forced to give up the Brumbies’ head coaching role after years juggling both roles.
In an open and compelling interview, Larkham said he questioned whether he should have stayed at the Brumbies, or sought a club role overseas to experience a different coaching environment, instead of moving full-time into the Wallabies’ program.
“Yeah, I’ve had lots of thought about that,” Larkham revealed to foxsports.com.au.
“A few guys here in Canberra, close mates and ex-players, said I shouldn’t have taken it at the time.”
It’s a fascinating revelation, one with the benefit of hindsight perhaps proves correct, but few would have turned down the chance to coach the Wallabies to another World Cup having failed at the final hurdle in 2015 at Twickenham.
“They thought there was still stuff to do at the Brumbies and still growth to have here,” he said.
“I guess I saw it a little differently.
“Yeah, I regretted it at the time.
“You go down this path and you learn a lot of things.
“I have one hundred per cent confidence it made me a better coach.
“It’s put me in a better position to do a better job here at the Brumbies, which I always wanted to do.”
He says people in Rugby Australia like Rod Kafer, his former teammate and one of the most astute minds in Australian rugby, were of great counsel in the months and years following his departure from the Wallabies set-up.
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Larkham added that Rugby Australia were very supportive in helping him find his feet again in 2019, particularly by providing opportunities throughout the various programs, including women’s rugby, sevens and the under-20s.
Yet after the heartbreak of having his dreams not play out how he envisioned, Larkham says the experience coaching overseas at Munster in the south-west of Ireland was positive for his career.
“How to deal with disappointment, which was really what I was feeling at the time when I left Australian Rugby, was something I had to learn along the way” he said.
“But also just looking at the game with a different set of eyes and experimenting with things over there that I’m going to bring back here.”
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The 1999 World Cup-winner describes the experience coaching overseas as “amazing”, where he went from coaching 14-15 games a season at the Brumbies to around 30 across Europe, the United Kingdom and South Africa.
What’s more, he went from controlling a squad of almost 40 to around 55, particularly after the onset of Covid-19, which saw the academy players train with the senior squad, featuring world class players like Conor Murray.
“We had a huge staff, the support is phenomenal, the amount of travel that you had to go through, the different experiences you have with competitions, the weather, the different teams, it was amazing, and then just dealing with all of the different people, different coaches that you coach against and different coaches that you get to talk to that we had in the province itself,” he said.
“Dealing with different players and different personalities and trying to get the most out of them, it was phenomenal.
“I’d highly recommend it to any coach.
“It allowed me to reflect on things. I was thrust into head coaching in 2014, really when Jake stepped aside from the Brumbies and Laurie and I took over. I wasn’t ready. I thought I wasn’t ready at the time to be a head coach. I didn’t really understand what high-performance was all about, of how to run a team, how to get the most out of a team.
“The break for me to go away, to get away from the Brumbies, and see it from a different perspective has been extremely valuable.”
Larkham doesn’t believe he will reinvent the wheel after arriving back in Canberra, but he wants to implement “one or two” things that he picked up coaching in Ireland at the Brumbies.
“We have world class coaches here in Laurie Fisher, Rod Seib and Dan Palmer, and the program has been really successful at developing a new crop of exciting Wallabies,” he said.
Just as importantly, he is eager to fill the stands in Canberra, noting that the Brumbies have improved in his absence but not been rewarded with an influx of support.
“That’s certainly going to be a focus for me coming back in this time, is to make sure that we are all growing the game,” he said.
“The dream would definitely be that we can pack out the stadium every week.”