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Premiership Rugby

The innovator

A Gallagher Premiership Rugby ball

The announcement that Rod Kafer has landed the post of head coach at Saracens may have shocked many observers given the relative youth of the former Wallaby centre, but the 32-year-old has long been renowned for his superb technical insight into the game. 

Even before he arrived at Leicester Tigers to take up a role as player/coach, 'Tugboat' – as Kafer is sometimes known – had built up a reputation as a backline innovator, playing an instrumental role in the rise of Australian side the ACT Brumbies from also-rans to Super 12 champions.

Rugby in Canberra had always been in the shadow of the more established teams at Queensland and New South Wales, but in the late 1990s the Brumbies effected a revolution that would put them at the forefront of Australian and world rugby.

Under coaches Rod Macqueen and then Eddie Jones, ACT launched a style of play that was as entertaining to watch as it was effective, with opposition defenders mesmerised by the sheer variety of running  angles and sleight of hand employed by the Brumbies in attack. 

And central to this game-plan was Kafer – a founder member of the ACT Brumbies Super 12 franchise – the versatile back able to influence proceedings from fly-half, fullback or centre.

Never one to shrink into the background, Kafer – in a team boasting many highly vocal players such as George Gregan, Owen Finegan and Joe Roff – was the dominant personality, his midfield direction keeping the Brumbies going forward.

His abilities saw him elevated to the Australian national side, Kafer winning a total of 12 caps but suffering perhaps from being viewed as a 'utility' player by the Wallaby management. Kafer's achievements on the rugby field are especially notable given that he has suffered from diabetes since he was 15 and must carefully manage his blood sugar levels. 

In the Super 12, a competition featuring the cream of New Zealand, South African and Australian talent, the Brumbies became one of the teams to beat and the only side who looked likely to break the Kiwi stranglehold on the title.

In 2000 they hosted the Super 12 final against New Zealand's Crusaders – missing out by an agonisingly close 20-19 scoreline in arctic conditions at Bruce Stadium.

But the following year, the ACT Brumbies went one better, beating the Sharks from South Africa to become the first – and only – non-New Zealand to win the competition.

It was a remarkable rise for the Canberra men and the ultimate vindication of their innovative game-plan and with this mission accomplished,  Kafer then decided to spread his wings and head for some experience overseas with Leicester.

But Kafer’s departure was clouded by controversy. In his capacity as president of the Australian Rugby Union Players' Association (RUPA), Kafer made public his belief that  Brumbies players were victims of bias from the Australian Rugby Union, saying:

"You would like to think that everyone would be treated equal, but in this farmyard some pigs are more equal than others."

The chief executive of the ARU accused Kafer of breaching the players' code of conduct, but the episode quickly passed into history as the centre embarked on a new career in England.

His impact as player/coach was immediate at Welford Road, with the straight-talking Australian quickly earning the respect of his colleagues on both the training ground and the field of play.

But after two years with the Tigers, Kafer was ready for another challenge and at the end of the 2002/03 season announced that he had signed for North London club Saracens which gave him the opportunity to hook up with chief executive Mark Sinderberry – another of the key architects of the ACT Brumbies’ rise to prominence.

Signing up as player/coach, Kafer found himself directing operations on the training field after the previous coaching team – headed by All Black legend Wayne Shelford – departed following last season’s disappointing eighth-place finish in the Premiership.

Now elevated to the head coach role, Kafer will be hanging up his playing boots for good, but even from the sidelines the centre should have a mighty impact on the way Saracens approach their game in the 2003-2004 season.

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