It takes a brave person to step into Australian rugby. Perhaps, given the financial troubles of the code, it takes an even more daring person to step into women’s fifteens rugby.
But despite walking into a firestorm in late August, as the Wallaroos took to social media to complain of inequality with their male counterparts, Rugby Australia’s new women’s high-performance manager Jaime Fernandez didn’t flinch.
“Even in my sport of rowing, I didn’t come from a traditional background,” Fernandez, the three-time Olympian, tells The Roar.
“I grew up in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, so you couldn’t get more removed from what is typically seen as the rowing environment. And, perhaps, it’s similar to the rugby one.
“I’ve always loved a challenge, always looked at things glass half full, probably even accused of that in my rowing days of looking at things glass half full, and I see a silver lining in everything.
“I’ve faced lots of adversity personally, losing family, losing my wife and other things like that. But with all of that, I see the good in things and the opportunity that exists.
“I’ve never looked at sport necessarily as a binary win-loss, and I’ve never looked at things as, ‘Gee, that’s terrible, why would you do that?’ More than anything, that has probably attracted me to roles in the past.”
For Fernandez, that opportunity is women’s fifteens rugby in Australia, with two World Cups in the next six years, including hosting the tournament in 2029.
“The thing that also resonated with me was that view about wanting to be successful in not only in the ‘25 World Cup but in the ‘29 home one,” he said.
“I’ve had the good fortune of competing for my country at a home Olympics. So, I understand how special that is, how unique that is, and what an opportunity to be part of a burgeoning aspect of the game in the women’s space.”
The question, however, is how is a former rower going to make a contribution to women’s rugby and turn the Wallaroos into a genuine force?
“The reality is I come from a different sport, I have a different sort of name, I grew up in a small little town in Arnhem Land, so should I probably be sitting here? Probably not,” he says.
“I probably shouldn’t have been sitting in a boat at three Olympics either, but I did.
“If I’m given an opportunity, I’ll make a choice. And then once I’ve made that choice, away I go.”
While most of the attention has been on the Wallabies’ year from hell, Fernandez, the no-frills high-performance specialist who is known as ‘Hamma’ and not to be confused by Hamish ‘The Hammer’ McLennan, has been operating behind the scenes since he was appointed in the last weeks of winter.
Without fanfare, he travelled with the Wallaroos across the ditch to study and find out more about what the national team needed.
What he saw was “nothing but wonderful people, who had great enthusiasm” for rugby.
He also discovered that the Wallaroos were desperate for someone to take their game to new heights by injecting some more detail and intellect into their game. Not just over a tour, but an entire year.
Then, as Australians rolled their eyes at Eddie Jones’ official return to Japan, he landed one of the most important deals in Australian women’s rugby history a week ago by securing the services of Jo Yapp as the Wallaroos’ first full-time coach.
Cause for celebration?
“No, it’s nose to the grindstone, there’s plenty still to do,” Fernandez said.
“It’s an important signing, more so for the players than anyone else because ultimately, at the end of the day, they’re the core of our business.
“It was: ‘OK, there’s a key piece of our puzzle, now, what do we build around her to ensure that we keep building on that and keep feeding those green shoots?’”
Yapp, the three-time World Cup English halfback, will arrive in an all-too-familiar environment, where the budget is tight but the desire to improve is strong.
It’s a position she’s found herself in before, having seen her Worcester-led side financially collapse.
Before then, the former England captain, who previously coached with the national side, had seen her Premier 15s side to a top-six position despite huge financial uncertainty.
Worcester’s loss, however, was Australia’s gain as Fernandez quickly discovered, as Yapp beat 42 others to succeed Jay Tregonning as Wallaroos coach.
“It was a piece of serendipity that occurs sometimes in life where a door closes and another opportunity or another one opens,” Fernandez said.
“The thing that resonated with Jo, and in fairness with all the people who put their hand up, was just what a good, quality person she was.
“She’d obviously fought very hard for that program there in the Premier division and Worcester and demonstrated a high degree of integrity.
“When you have values like that in a person, you immediately become interested.
“That personality and her values and principles resonated with me.”
The other thing that stood out was that Yapp “had done a lot with a little”.
While Jones quit his Wallabies post sighting a lack of financial impetus to help him carry out his plans, Fernandez believes money isn’t everything.
“If we go down that path, we’ll find there’s lots of teams that get lots of money but they’re not always successful,” he says.
Fernandez isn’t wrong.
After all, the Wallabies had 23 staff at one point in 2023 and spent the best part of $1 million on psychologists and yet they missed the World Cup knockout stage for the first time.
For Fernandez, high-performance is about “a collection of daily behaviours of being the best you can possibly be.”
“The moment you put your feet on the ground in the morning to when you go to sleep at night, it’s an all the time thing,” he says.
“It’s easy to say and describe, but it’s a real challenge to do. That’s why I think there is great opportunity for all sport, not just rugby, as to how you actually live and breathe those behaviours.
“And high performance isn’t about what you get paid, it’s about those behaviours and attitudes and how you apply yourself: the industry, the wherewithal, the work-ethic, the attitude, the attention to detail, these are things that I think we can all look to continue to bring into this space, to keep working with players and staff on and keep challenging ourselves every day on being better.”
Fernandez knows all about the fine margins in sport that can define a career.
Back in 2000, his men’s eight crew fell short of a historic gold medal by 0.8 of a second to Britain after a slow start in Sydney.
Two decades later in Tokyo, he oversaw Australia’s two gold in rowing at the Summer Games – one of which was claimed by 0.4 seconds.
To Fernandez, whose daughter Ash plays for the Brumbies’ Super W side, high-performance is about ensuring that under pressure, skills are executed.
“In rowing in Tokyo, I think we won two gold medals by .4 of a second. So those five margins, a bounce of the ball, a refereeing decision, a kick that shaves the post, a pass that is slightly too far forward, it’s those moments under pressure that you still have the capability to make good decisions, and the right decisions, is what defines high-performance environments,” he says.
He points to the Wallaroos’ ability to hang on against Wales in their final Test of the year as an example of high-performance shining through.
“That ability to still be able to deliver under pressure, when everything is going to hell in a handbasket, and there’s all sorts of things going on, a bit like that game against the Welsh, we’ve got a red card, we’ve got a yellow card, the ladies are on the line, absolutely fighting against a northern hemisphere team who wants to maul the ball in from five meters out, and they just keep holding it together. That, to me, is a definition of high-performance,” Fernandez says.
Having grown up in one of the country’s most regional parts, Fernandez also believes part of his job, as well as Yapp’s, is ensuring they don’t just find talent but develop it.
“Because of my own experience, I believe talent can come from anywhere,” he says.
“In the Territory, it was about lots of opportunity, wonderful people and lots of rough diamonds, and I was one of those.
“People need opportunity. I’m a good example of that.
“It’s not about rolling out the red carpet. But at the same time, it’s about giving young people the opportunity to do special things and to be involved.
“Now, we have someone whose job can hopefully go and find some rough diamonds.”
Given the rude health in the women’s sevens side, it won’t surprise anyone should they unearth several stars.