Stephen Larkham’s winding and winning road to Munster
Coach discusses ‘frightening’ bush fires and the ‘beauty of a rugby team’
Munster coach Stephen Larkham with secondrow Billy Holland. ‘We had a big disappointment last weekend, and we’re all hurting.’ Photograph: Gary Carr/Inpho
Australians love a walkabout and love to travel. It’s in their DNA, and because it generally takes them so long to reach anywhere else on the planet, they often stay a while.
Travelling in a fried-out combie, as Men At Work put it, buying bread from a man in Brussels, or lying in a den in Bombay.
Save for a three-year stint in Japan at the end of his playing career, Stephen Larkham spent the previous dozen years with the Brumbies and the last decade coaching in a land Down Under.
Whereupon, he upped sticks with his wife Jacqueline and daughters Jaimee (16) and Tiahna (12) and moved to Munster, and he notes that “Shannon is actually the furthest flight that you can get from Canberra. We couldn’t get any further away if we tried and to a wetter country.”
“But Munster are one of the most renowned teams in the world and the whole set-up, the journey that they’re on, in the end it was an easy decision to make. The hardest thing was making sure the family were going to be comfortable.
“From a rugby perspective, it was always something I was going to do. Being so ‘southern hemisphere-centric’, I knew I needed to coach in Europe somewhere.”
No conversation with a newly arrived Aussie would be complete without discussing the weather.
They have friends over at the moment, which is a regular occurrence, and when explaining how nice it can be over here they asked Larkham: “What temperature does it get to?”
“Twenty degrees? That’s it?”
The topic has added perspective due to the bush fires back home, making it a distressing time for all Australians everywhere.
“We’ve got family on both my mother’s side and my father’s side in Canberra, and uncles and aunties living on the coast in that belt where the fires are right now. I haven’t had an update today but they were evacuated a couple of days ago.
“Yeah, frightening stuff; the worst I’ve ever seen it and I’d imagine the worst it’s ever been, with no real ease in sight. It would be great if we could just take a week of this weather [in Ireland] and put it in those areas, just some rain, and give a bit of sunshine over here.”
In many ways, he says, Canberra’s size and cool climate made Limerick less of a culture shock.
“It’s not a big city by Australian standards, about 500,000, which is maybe double Limerick and I grew up on a farm outside Canberra, so I’m used to smaller communities.”
“A small farm,” he stresses, by Aussie standards, of about 600 acres (242 hectares), while he likens the Canberra community to the “amazing Munster rugby community”.
The Larkhams are also comfortable with where they are living and their children’s schools. Both he and Munster conducted “due diligence” before he signed on, and being quite nervous for his eldest daughter in making such a big move, travelled over with her in advance. The rugby has had its difficulties of late, he admits, but he loves everything about the working environment.
We won everything we could win. That was a golden period for Australian rugby. We just had this feeling that we could beat anybody on our day
Almost an hour in Larkham’s company at Munster’s high performance centre at the University of Limerick passes in what seems barely half the time. He’s engaged and engaging, and has a self-deprecating wit, as he recounts the twists along the way from that farm to here.
Larkham’s mum, Maureen, died in 2011, but his dad, Geoffrey, still lives on the Merino fine wool farm where Larkham grew up with his older sister Rebecca.
As well as running the farm and his own building business, Geoffrey played more than 300 games for Wests in Canberra as a lock and backrower. “He was 6ft 1in, I’m taller than him, but back in the day 6ft 1in was pretty big.”
Cricket and tennis were also on both sides of the family tree.
“Dad found the camaraderie and fun he could have with rugby, so he moved away from tennis, whereas uncle Brucey stayed with tennis. His two sons, Brent and Todd, played on the international circuit.”
Larkham encourages me to Google his cousins. Brent Larkham reached a career high of 108 in the world and Todd climbed to 136, both of them playing in all the Grand Slam events. Brent coached Todd, who in turn coached Nick Kyrgios, also from Canberra, for a while.
Larkham recalls a funny story when playing doubles in the ACT championships when he partnered Brent.
“I was so nervous, and so bad. It got to the point where he served and I got off the court, so he was playing singles against doubles. I couldn’t get a serve over. That was the only time I played with him.”
His dad had played for Wests on the day Larkham was born and he regularly watched him over his career. “They wouldn’t let me play until I was nine because I was so small. Mum didn’t like it, but then Dad was my coach until I was 14.”
Larkham was originally a scrumhalf, and he loved the fun his Dad brought as a coach.
“He made it really enjoyable. I looked up to him as a bit of an idol. I used to watch every game that he played.”
His dad played until he was around 50, and their plan was to play one game together for Wests. “But they didn’t let us, which was a bit of a shame.”
Larkham wanted to study architecture, before his dad convinced him to enrol in engineering and IT at Canberra university in 1993.
He was still a scrumhalf with the ACT second-grade team. George Gregan, a year older, Paul Brown and Larkham were the three scrumhalves. “I always looked up to George. I had a lot of respect for him.”
Indeed, when Gregan returned from playing with the Wallabies to reclaim his place, Larkham dropped down to third choice.
His coach wanted to keep him and moved him to 13, where he came on as a replacement in a final watched by the then Brumbies coach Rod Macqueen.
“I had a good game, so he came up to me afterwards and asked me if I’d be interested in a contract, as a utility back. I was 21. So I signed, for no money at all.” It was his home town team. His ambition was to play for the Wallabies, so after completing three of his four years in engineering, he abandoned his studies.
An injury in preseason to the first-choice outside centre meant Larkham was pitched straight into the Brumbies’ team for their opening games in the inaugural Super 12. “I was throwing my body into everything, but they were just too fast, too skilful. I could see the writing on the wall. I was going to get dropped.”
Rod Kafer was the Brumbies fullback, and in covering across to make a tackle, Larkham’s leg swung around accidentally and snapped his team-mate’s ankle. A sliding doors moment.
“Just as I’m about to lose my spot at 13, I created a spot at 15. I jumped into 15 and I flourished. I became more of a running fullback than the other fullbacks around, and we had a good team.”
His versatility catapulted him into the Wallabies squad that same year, 1996, before Matt Burke’s injury gave him a run at fullback.
However, Macqueen’s decision to convert Larkham into their outhalf in 1998 proved inspired. He was pivotal to the Wallabies winning the 1999 World Cup, reaching the 2003 final, and also winning two Tri-Nations titles and five Bledisloe Cups, as well as two Super Rugby titles with the Brumbies.
“I suppose you’d have to say winning the World Cup was the highlight, but we won everything we could win. That was a golden period for Australian rugby. We just had this feeling that we could beat anybody on our day. A great group of players and I was lucky enough to play with those guys.”
He has since been inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame and World Rugby Hall of Fame, and reflects on his career contentedly except for the injury afflicted latter years.
“It would have been great to have been more robust. I was sitting on a Tens machine, a muscle stimulator, for half an hour before every training session. It became a tedious process and not as enjoyable as I would have liked, the way I finished.”
By then 93kg, he reckons the additional weight was detrimental to his knees, before he dropped to 85kg when playing with the Ricoh Black Rams in Japan.
“I probably could, and should, have kept playing. If you have to retire because your body gives up on you I understand that, but if your body doesn’t give up on you, don’t retire. You’re a long time not playing.”
However, he was homesick, and the Brumbies offered him a job as assistant coach.
“I never really wanted to be a coach and after such a long, intense career I felt I needed a break from rugby, but it was an opportunity to get back to Canberra and I’ve really enjoyed coaching.”
“But it was a tumultuous first year,” he says of a campaign in which they won four of 18 matches. “Friendy [Connacht head coach Andy Friend] was my first head coach and he got sacked after three weeks. It was a real shocking time to see what happened, because Friendy is a great coach, and he was very good for me. He was full of knowledge. It was a terrible year but at the same time it was great growth.”
That would be the biggest thing for me, making sure that everyone knows and has the ability to make decisions and play with the ball in hand
The Brumbies reached the final in 2013, and after Larkham was promoted to head coach in 2014, the semi-finals in 2015, by which point he was also Michael Cheika’s assistant with the Wallabies.
He describes his first year as Brumbies head coach as “the greatest experience in my coaching career so far. I really enjoyed it because you get the preseason to work on things, you get to know the players and you build a bond with them.”
But Larkham also admits the dual role not only prevented him having a full preseason with the Brumbies again, it also burned him out.
“So I chose the  World Cup campaign. It didn’t work out in the end, so in hindsight it would have been much better to stay where I was.”
Australia won a shortened Rugby Championship and reached the World Cup final, but in February 2019, Larkham was controversially sacked by Cheika.
He became a high performance coaching adviser with Rugby Australia, working with their under-20s, women and Sevens squads, and rediscovered his joy of coaching. But, although it was a wrench to sever those ties, he missed what he calls “the high performance arena, where you’ve got to get results every week” and “the beauty of a rugby team”.
“There are so many different elements to a rugby team that make it such a beautiful place to be around. Now, as a senior coach, you’re a little bit less connected to the playing group but the team atmosphere is just amazing, sharing things together and working.”
He stresses that Munster’s push to be a better attacking side has come from Johann van Graan and the other coaches as well, and Larkham’s influence has been most profound in Europe.
“We play a 1-6-1 formation with our forwards, they’re in pods in the middle so there’s a little bit of structure around it. I’ve played that structure before and I guess it’s carried over from my playing career. It was all about the collective and we always worked on our skills and we were all good rugby players.
“So that would be the biggest thing for me, making sure that everyone knows and has the ability to make decisions and play with the ball in hand. It’s not something that can happen overnight and from my experience it doesn’t happen in one season either. It’s a longer burn.”
Munster had different strategies for the games against Leinster, mindful of their defence and the wind, and Ulster, when passing too much and making 16 turnovers. Larkham appreciates they have to get the balance right against Racing 92 tomorrow.
“It’s the final for us,” he says. “We had a big disappointment last weekend, and we’re all hurting. The way that we played the game and then some of the reactions after the game have really hurt the players but we’ve bounced back really well, we’ve put a lot of good preparation into this week.”
Larkham always seemed to play with confidence, and can clearly instil that into players.
“Every week you need that. I was a very attacking sort of player, where I kept the ball in hand and I liked to run a lot. I was also a very defensive orientated player. I prided myself on defence which people probably didn’t recognise as much. We won the World Cup in 1999 on our defence.
“So when I first came into coaching, it wasn’t about teaching how I played the game because everyone sees it slightly differently. The challenge for me was trying to see the game through the players’ eyes and the biggest thing I learned early on, and something we try to instil here as coaches, is to understand that as a coach you’ve got no control over what happens on the field.
“You can’t talk to the referee, you can’t make any decisions for the players out there on the field. They’ve got to do it themselves, so the biggest challenge for a coach, and for myself, is to make sure that those players are completely confident with what they’re doing in the 80 minutes at the weekend.
“All through the preseason, all through the week, it’s about building those players up so that they know, and run, and can win the game. And they need to win it.”