By Mike Adams
LONG-TIME Queensland Reds coach John Connolly was appointed head coach of the Wallabies yesterday with the task of taking the struggling Australian national team through next year’s World Cup in France.
Connolly, known by the nickname "Knuckles", takes over from Eddie Jones, sacked in December following the Wallabies’ disastrous 2005 season, when they lost eight of nine internationals, including seven successive defeats, before beating Ireland.
The Australian Rugby Union (ARU) said Connolly, aged 54, had a two-year contract and would lead a "new, streamlined" coaching staff through the 2007 World Cup.
At his first press conference after the appointment, Connolly voiced strong support for Wallaby captain George Gregan, who critics blamed alongside Jones for the team’s horror 2005.
"One hundred and eighteen Tests and I think he is one of Australia’s great players - he will be one of the first people I meet with over the next day or so," Connolly said when asked about Gregan’s future.
"He has things to prove to make the side, but I think he is one of Australia’s great players and at the moment we only have two or three certain selections in the team," Connolly said.
Connolly was the Queensland coach from 1989 to 2000, winning the then Super 10 series in 1994 and 1995.
He then went to Europe where he had winning seasons with Stade Francais and most recently Bath, and also coached Swansea.
ARU Chief Executive Gary Flowers said a recent review of the Wallaby’s 2005 season identified key weaknesses that needed to be addressed.
He said Connolly’s combination of experience in Australia and overseas made him the right choice.
"We certainly have the players, now we have a head coach with the right skills to get the Wallabies back in a winning vein," he said.
Flowers said Connolly’s coaching team would have a new structure, with specialist coaches for attack, defence and restarts.
Connolly, who is particularly known for his success in building strong forward packs, said he had no illusions about the magnitude of the task when he formally takes the job on Monday.
"I think we have a lot of areas we need to improve in," Connolly said.
Flowers said negotiations were continuing with candidates for assistant coaching positions, though Wales assistant coach Scott Johnson and former Wallaby hooker Michael Foley were expected to be part of the team.
Connolly was considered by some the last man standing in the race to replace Jones, after high-profile coaches Ewen McKenzie of the New South Wales Waratahs and former ACT Brumbies coach David Nucifora did not apply for the job.