Can Michael Cheika transform himself as Wallabies coach?

Nicholas Bishop Columnist

By , Nicholas Bishop is a Roar Expert

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    We’ve all seen the TV programmes. A high-profile ‘celebrity’ expert addresses a failing business and (more often than not) comes up with a spectacular turnaround in the space of about one hour’s viewing. Cue an emotional outpouring of gratitude from the rescued owners.

    In the U.K, it all started with Sir John Harvey-Jones and Troubleshooter back in the early 1990s. More recently, top chef Gordon Ramsey in Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares and hotelier Alex Polizzi in The Fixer have taken up the same torch in restaurants and hotels.

    It is like a televisual whirlwind. They visit and assess, make the necessary fixes and then depart, perhaps returning a few months down the line to check on progress.

    The formula has proved highly addictive on our TV screens. In business it’s called ‘transformational leadership’ and there are some prominent rugby coaches who fall into that category.

    Often they have already made their fortunes outside the sport, and so they can afford not to be a part of its institutional or administrative apparatus. Businessmen like Alan Jones in the mid-1980s in Australia, Clive Woodward in the late 1990s in England and now Michael Cheika with the Wallabies had all earned the right to that independence from the unions who employed them and did not depend on the income they received.

    Such men represent a new broom ready to sweep the house clean. They have an inspiring vision of how they want to play the game and they have the charisma to get a buy-in from the players. They treat them as ‘whole’ people rather than as employees in order to encourage trust and loyalty and establish a stronger bond within the group than those the players experience elsewhere (for example at their clubs). They actively encourage innovation and creativity from their coaching assistants in the resolution of problems.

    Transformational leadership represents development by upheaval. Changes tend to be radical and often rub administrative bodies the wrong way. Alan Jones’ period as Wallaby coach was marked by unprecedented on-field success in the years between 1984 and 1987 but also by internal strife off it which brought his tenure to an abrupt end.

    Alan Jones Wallabies coach

    (Photo by S&G/PA Images via Getty Images)

    Woodward’s time in charge of England was defined by frequent clashes with the RFU which forced his resignation within one year of winning the World Cup. His transformational impact on another great rugby institution, the British and Irish Lions, also backfired in spectacular fashion in 2005.

    When the transformational coach leaves, success can be very difficult to maintain. England fell through the floor in 2004 under Woodward’s successor Andy Robinson and their winning percentage dropped by 30 per cent. After Michael Cheika left the Waratahs in 2015, their winning percentage dropped by 26 per cent.

    When Cheika took over the reins of the national team from Ewen McKenzie, the situation was primed for him to succeed. After McKenzie’s sudden resignation, Australian rugby was in a state of upheaval and it urgently needed transformation.

    Cheika drove forward the implementation of ‘Giteau’s law’, which allowed him to select experienced overseas-based players. He innovated with the creation of the ‘Pooper’ back-row and added a new scrum coach from outside the country in ex-Puma Mario Ledesma. He made the fixes and rightly reaped the rewards throughout the year, both in the Rugby Championship and at the World Cup.

    Rebuilding and consolidation is another matter, and it is here that Cheika has to find something new in his coaching character and resumé. Australia’s win rate has dropped back to 40 per cent since the beginning of 2016 from the peak of 83 per cent in World Cup year.

    We rarely get to see what happened off-camera, in the Gordon Ramsey failures, but in rugby they are too obvious to ignore.

    Particularly in the area of selection, there is a sense that Cheika is still trying to change the situation through a series of upheavals, rather than stick with the process, patiently rebuild and place one brick on top of another.

    In the two matches against New Zealand, Allan Alaalatoa started at tighthead with only one full season of Super Rugby under his belt at the position, and in Dunedin he was exposed through no fault of his own. Both he and Samu Kerevi were heralded as leaders within the team before their places in the starting line-up were assured.

    After being regulars in 2016, others like Reece Hodge and Lopeti Timani must be wondering what they have done wrong, as they appear in the squad one week and are out of it the next.

    Like Alan Jones before him, Cheika is trying to find the hidden gem in the dross. But where Jones sieved for gold and found neglected nuggets like Steve Cutler, Bill Campbell, Nick Farr-Jones and David Codey, in the professional era Cheika is experimenting with unproven youngsters at Super Rugby level like Ned Hanigan, Jack Dempsey and Jordan Uelese. It is costing him dearly.

    All three may become bonafide Test players in good time, but right now they do not have the background to succeed.

    Let’s take a look at Ned Hanigan first. Australia experienced a lot of problems at the breakdown in the first half at Perth, losing five bits of ball to turnovers or turnover penalties, with the loss of control in that area leading directly to the first Springboks try in the 25th minute:

    After Israel Folau makes the initial cut, Reece Hodge is first up to clean out Springbok number eight Uzair Cassiem. Cassiem wins the height battle in that contest, the Boks get a push through contact and the ball springs loose at the side of the ruck:

    Earlier problems in the same area had predicted this outcome. At the first Wallaby breakdown of the game, Ned Hanigan was unable to remove Pieter-Steph du Toit and South Africa were awarded a penalty:

    Players are coached to remove opponents in a way that is tailored to suit their physical abilities. With Du Toit already established above the tackle ball, Hanigan’s best chance is to remove him with a roll or peel-away technique as he is not strong or mature enough to blast him off the ball with power. Instead, he falls between the two stools.

    This theme was repeated later in the same half against Jaco Kriel, with Hanigan again riding up and over the top of the jackal:

    It was not the only time Hanigan had trouble with Kriel’s strength on his feet in contact:

    It is obvious from Hanigan’s body shape that he is not powerful enough in the upper body at this stage of his career to remove a defender as strong and tenacious as Kriel.

    The inexperience of some of the young players in Cheika’s match-day squad also became evident in other aspects of their contact work:

    Here Ned Hanigan is taking the ball into contact as the inside runner in a three-man pod, with his two supports (number 16 Jordan Uelese and number 17 Tom Robertson) running beyond him.

    But Hanigan chooses to cut back and away from his support and into the heaviest element of the Springbok defence, all 2.05m and 125kgs of Lood de Jager, eventually exposing the ball to a turnover by Kriel at a potentially game-winning moment!

    It wasn’t just the breakdown where Hanigan’s lack of physical maturity counted against him, it was also the case at the driving lineout:

    If a defender has been allowed to make contact with the receiver in the air by the referee, he has to make use of the opportunity to ‘swim’ past the blockers as the catcher comes back down to terra firma, and break up the drive. However, Hanigan is sealed away from the ball and the drive rumbles upfield for another 20 metres before it finally loses momentum.

    In the 59th minute, it was no accident that the driving lineout which brought the scores level arrowed through the space initially guarded by Hanigan (see the highlight reel), or that he gave up a penalty at the death for over-compensating, on this occasion competing too hard in the air against de Jager:

    It would be unfair to single out Hanigan as the sole culprit, however. He is the typical result of a policy which has accelerated the selection and promotion of young players with little Super Rugby experience beyond reasonable limits.

    With little or no real experience at number eight, Jack Dempsey was expected to come on in that role and control ball at the base of a struggling scrum in the last quarter:

    The ball spurts out at the side, it is seized by Kolisi and Hougaard and all of a sudden Australia are defending desperately in the shadow of their own posts a few moments later!

    Likewise, I sincerely hope that Allan Alaalatoa’s international career has not been too severely hampered by his early promotion to the starting XV, because his confidence certainly has taken a big hit. He was still bleeding after Dunedin psychologically when he came on against the Springboks, as the 67th-minute scrum from the reel illustrates.

    Summary
    There is a positive and negative side to transformational leadership, and it is not all a tale of unblemished success stories – as watching a series of Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares might have you believe!

    Michael Cheika had a great 2015, and everything he touched indeed transformed and turned into gold (or at least silver at the World Cup). But there has not been an effective period of consolidation since then, so the sense lingers that he has to find another string to his bow as an international head coach to take another step forward.

    The restless need for change or upheaval is constantly in evidence in playing and selection policy and it is hurting Australia. Kurtley Beale was back to the blindside wing in set-piece defence at Perth, despite his excellent contribution in the front line at Dunedin.

    Young players are being selected before they are physically mature, or have the background in Super Rugby which will enable them to succeed at the higher level. Allan Alaalatoa is a starting tighthead after one year of Super Rugby in the position, Ned Hanigan the starting number after one year there in the run-on side for the Waratahs.

    Ned Hanigan Australia Rugby Union Wallabies 2017

    (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

    Jack Demspey is expected to fill all the requirements at number eight after playing mostly on the flank, Jordan Uelese is expected to jump straight from the Wallaby under-20s into the full senior team with no Super Rugby under his belt at all.

    Cheika and his team still have the ability to produce a positive outcome from the current Rugby Championship and win their three remaining games. It is well within their grasp.

    But it will not be achieved by reaching for the impossible, or at least the highly unlikely, in selection.

    Nicholas Bishop
    Nicholas Bishop

    Nick Bishop has worked as a rugby analyst and advisor to Graham Henry (1999-2003), Mike Ruddock (2004-2005) and most recently Stuart Lancaster (2011-2015). He also worked on the 2001 British & Irish Lions tour to Australia and produced his first rugby book with Graham Henry at the end of the tour. Three more rugby books have followed, all of which of have either been nominated for or won national sports book awards. Nick’s latest is a biography of Phil Larder, the first top Rugby League coach to successfully transfer over to Union, entitled “The Iron Curtain”.

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