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'The days of the heavy, slow neanderthal are gone. The game is too fast'

Brendan Whelan was part of the Wallabies’ tour of Europe last month.

Brendan Whelan at Wallabies training.
Brendan Whelan at Wallabies training.

WITH TWO WEEKS of mandatory quarantine in a hotel in Brisbane finally drawing to a close, Brendan Whelan can get home to his family.

He spent November in Europe with the Wallabies, working as a strength and conditioning [S&C] coach with Dave Rennie’s squad as they played Scotland, England, and Wales.

One of the downsides of that role was having to quarantine when he got back to Australia, meaning he had to call into his daughter Caoimhe’s ninth birthday celebrations last week via Zoom, while his son, Tiernan, has been missing him too. 

These are the sacrifices so many people make to keep international sport going but Whelan thoroughly enjoyed his experience with the Wallabies, which meant more than 20 weeks on the road in total when the Rugby Championship is taken into account.

Formerly a player with Ennis and Thomond, Whelan has been Down Under since 2006 and his full-time role with Rugby Australia is as the union’s Head of Athletic Performance for the National Pathways and Wallaroos [the women's national team].

With Dave Rennie’s Wallabies in need of an S&C expert, Whelan was seconded in recent months. It led to many lovely moments on tour, including seeing his parents for the first time in nearly three years when they came to Cardiff for the Wales game.

In Edinburgh, Rob Leota – a player Whelan first worked with when Leota was just 14 – started for Australia and Sione Tuipulotu – another former player of his – was in the wider Scotland squad.

“The three of us catching up at Murrayfield, we were just saying we would never have thought this could happen,” says Whelan.

“The whole experience was awesome. It’s outside my Rugby Australia role, I pretty much look after every team under the Wallabies aside from the 7s.

“I got a call on a Saturday asking if I could jump on a plane to New Zealand the following Friday for three weeks… 20 weeks later, I was in hotel quarantine in Brisbane.”

IMG_5354 Whelan works with the Wallaroos in his Rugby Australia role.

Whelan took away a huge amount from being in the Wallabies camp over the last few months, including how good head coach Rennie is on the man-management side of things.

The Irishman is heading into some well-earned time off now before returning to his full-time gig with Rugby Australia, which promises to be very busy in 2022.

Whelan’s mum hails from Adelaide, with her parents having emigrated there from Limerick. There is sporting history on this side too, with Whelan’s grandmother having been heavily involved in the founding of the GAA association in Australia.

Whelan himself was born in Limerick and moved to Ennis with his family as a child. An association with Shannon rugby club helped to form his love for the sport and Whelan started with his local club, Ennis, before going on to play in the All-Ireland League with Thomond.

He counts himself lucky to have played with the great Ger Earls in Thomond, and even with a very young Keith Earls in a couple of friendly games.

“Ger was a hard, hard nut,” says Whelan. “A lovely bloke to hang around with and a hard man. You felt very safe with Ger on the pitch.”

His first visit to Australia as an adult was for a year’s backpacking in 2001, taking in the Lions tour, before he returned with his wife, Lorraine, in 2008. 

They based themselves in Melbourne and Whelan started working as a personal trainer in a Fitness First gym, before bumping into a couple of rugby folk on coaching courses in 2008 and being asked to get involved as the Rebels began to set up their player development pathways.

In 2014, he progressed into a senior S&C coach role with the Rebels’ Super Rugby side before Rugby Australia hired him for his current role at the end of 2017, meaning a move to Brisbane in 2019.

“I was either stubborn or exceptionally lucky to get where I am,” says Whelan of his journey.

PHOTO-2021-11-17-19-59-59 2 Whelan spent 11 years working with the Melbourne Rebels.

Each of the Australian franchises has its own academy and Whelan oversees those promising young players’ athletic development as they look to push on to play Super Rugby and star for the Wallabies.

Prior to Covid, the role meant visiting each of the academies on a rotating basis each month, designing their S&C programmes, catching up with coaches, observing training sessions, and then doing the same for the women’s teams – which also fall under Whelan’s wide-ranging remit.

Whelan flags that he is working with high-calibre athletic performance specialists in Rugby Australia such as Dean Benton and John Pryor as they aim to shape athletes who are suited to the modern game.

“We want fast and athletic players,” explains Whelan. “They should be able to move on a dime. The days of the big, heavy, slow neanderthal are gone. The game is too fast and they get left behind.

“A physically stronger, faster, more agile player is what we want. And really, really, really robust because you’ve got to be able to put up with Northern Hemisphere and Southern Hemisphere rugby.

“We’ve got to keep the pace of the All Blacks and the strength and power of the likes of England. You’ve got to have a mix of both.”

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He also oversees the Australia U20 team’s athletic programme and admits it has been tough in this area given the complete lack of international games during the pandemic. Getting to see players actually play is crucial, as is keeping them away from the financial might of rugby league’s NRL.

“The kids will drive towards exciting brands of rugby and success, so as long as we have those things we will keep them away from rugby league,” says Whelan. “We joke that rugby league is ‘The Bank’. We can’t compete financially but we do get kids coming back.”

IMG_6718 Whelan has become a better coach by working with female players.

The Wallaroos have had a very tough time during the pandemic, with their last international game all the way back in 2019.

But 2022 is a huge year for the team and Whelan is very excited about what lies ahead with games against Fiji, the US, Canada, and the Black Ferns – as well as the Super W domestic competition – to come before the World Cup in New Zealand.

Whelan says that working with female players has made him a better coach.

“The female player’s attention to detail is so high. They will ask ‘why?’ all the time,” he explains. 

“If you’ve got a brick wall in front of you and you tell a male player you want them to go through it three times, they’ll go and do it. The female player will want to know what the bricks are made of, when the wall was built, when it will be rebuilt. They always ask those questions and challenge you.”

Whelan delights in figuring out how different players and people react to different coaching methods, while he also relishes the wide-ranging remit of his Rugby Australia role.

He highlights how trusting a relationship he has with all of the hands-on coaches in the men’s and women’s pathways.

“I go where I’m wanted and piss off when I’m not!” says Whelan with a laugh.

He learned so much from his Wallabies experience and would happily help out again in the future, but his job is helping to develop the next generation:

“My core role is to make sure that players are ready to go into that Wallabies squad.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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