Australia could be on their way back as a rugby force following last week’s victory over New Zealand. Next week they take on Argentina, who themselves have shaken up the order by beating the All Blacks for the first time. At the centre of things for the Wallabies, but behind the scenes, is Welshman Craig Whelan, who spoke to Steffan Thomas.
Growing up as a huge rugby fan in Port Talbot, Craig Whelan could never have imagined himself working in the sport on the other side of the world.
But the man at the centre of a new era for Australian rugby says he wouldn’t swap his journey for anything now he counts Dave Rennie and Scott Wisemantel as Wallaby colleagues.
Whelan may not be a name familiar to most but he is the Wallabies’ lead analyst, while he also fulfils the same role with Super Rugby outfit the Waratahs, having previously been with the Ospreys and Wales under 20s.
“My move to Australia initially came about from me having worked with Steve Tandy at the Ospreys,” says the 29-year-old from Taibach, near Port Talbot.
“He was defence coach at the Waratahs and I got a phone call from him saying there was a position that became available.
“He asked whether I’d be interested and I jumped at the chance. I’d always wanted to have a crack at a job overseas and experience a different league.
“I was then offered the chance to go and work under Davie Rennie which I jumped at and he’s one of the best coaches I’ve worked with.”
When a team succeeds or fails the praise and criticism gets thrown the way of the head coach and the players.
If a sides defence leaks tries then the defence coach gets the stick – witness the demise of Wales’ Byron Hayward this week – with the backs coach coming under fire if the attack fails to fire.
But analysts are as important as any coach with the ability in their hands to plan tactically for the next opposition.
“Your relationship with the head coach is massive because at the end of the day the analyst is the one putting all the stats, coding and reports together,” says Whelan.
“If it doesn’t align to what the coach’s philosophies and principles are then it’s going to fall on deaf ears and things aren’t going to turn out very well on the field of play.
“The more you work with a coach, the more trust they have in you. For example, Steve Tandy would turn to me during an Ospreys game and ask my opinion on substitutions and that sort of thing.
“It’s still early days in Australia so I’ve got to build the trust there.
“But I work closely with Scott Wisemantel looking for space in attack. He’s pitchside while I’m in the coaching box so it’s just looking for where we can exploit some space if there’s anything we are not executing.
“It’s more stats focused in the box and looking for space.”
Wheelan is one of a number of Welsh analysts in top jobs around the rugby world with Welshmen Joe Lewis and Carwyn Morgan holding down top jobs with the RFU analytical team and Gavin Vaughan from Tonmawr involved with Scotland.
Whelan puts Wales’ analytical success down to the FA’s head of performance analysis and insight, Rhys Long ,who was part of Warren Gatland’s analytical team with Wales.
“Rhys Long built the system when he was WRU head analyst,” adds Whelan.
“He set up a coding centre where you plied your trade working with the Welsh Premiership sides and colleges which gives you a taste of what the industry looks like.
“I was doing Pontypridd v Cardiff and then you’d go back to the coding centre at the Vale where you would work 12 hours on the game doing individuals on the team.
“The hard work you put in there you transfer that into full time work. If you work with one of the regions you have had the right training.
“That’s the main reason that there’s so many successful Welsh analysts. Rhys Long deserves the credit, this is his legacy.”