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Does Australian rugby need to harden up?

Michael Cheika has welcome Curtis Rona into the Wallabies starting line-up. (AFP PHOTO / MARTIN BUREAU)
Roar Guru
12th May, 2016
147
2821 Reads

Don’t worry, I can see the poisoned arrows coming my way already… but not so long ago, in the halftime interview during the Rebels game, new Waratahs, coach Daryl Gibson, when asked about his team’s performance, famously proclaimed “Some of that stuff out there was rubbish.”

Despite the media comment that followed, it is nice to see a coach of any Australian side finally have the temerity to “tell it like it is” publicly.

As we all know, most Australian halftime comment or post-match interviews are usually splattered with politically correct window-dressing filled with a plethora of all the usual defensive clichés after their team simply was not good enough, and indeed actually were “rubbish” or ordinary.

One clear reason for this is that coaches feel they are also defending themselves for the team’s poor performance when often it is the team simply not getting the game plan right, and/or not thinking on their feet during the course of it.

Sometimes it is simply constant handling errors from players, if not repeated offences by certain individuals that effect a team’s performance.

No, it is not by definition the coaches fault, but easier to blame, and get rid of one person than 15, or even star players who are not delivering as they draw crowds, help TV ratings, and the sale of merchandise.

This is one of several reasons why coaches are so defensive in post-match interviews when things go really pear-shaped.

When a coach’s position is in on shaky ground as Michael Foley’s is for the Western Force, the post-match press conferences becomes a kind of official sounding off of “feel the love” rhetoric from both coach and captain which in the end comes oh so close to sounding pathetic and desperate.

Hey, if I don’t dare give you some public tough love, and continue to defend your poor form, then hopefully you and the players will continue to support me.

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According to Foley, he still has their full support – really? As a great bloke or as great coach?

Of course, the first would mean players are loathed to publicly criticise him for it not being the second.

Maybe some tough love, out in the open, was what was needed in first place from Foley instead of players and coach hiding behind a sea of defensive clichés.

As we all know, really nice guys come where?

If not always last, then too often second.

Eddie Jones was probably close at times to saying exactly what he thought, but he no doubt got reined in from above in case he, oh I don’t know, heaven forbid, offended or upset some player or other earning, sorry, how much a year? to perform with some sort of consistency and at a certain level?

I have no doubt that sadly, Kiwi coach Gibson has by now probably got one of those “don’t do that again” emails, and especially after Greg Martin on Rugby 360 passed a comment about how, unlike their New Zealand counterparts, Australian coaches are never really prepared to be that outspoken publicly about a teams’ or a given players’ performance.

To be fair to Greg Martin, it was a brief side comment, more a kind of bemoaning observation than an out-and-out criticism of Gibson, but unfortunately observations like that in a medium like television always seem to have a rippling effect.

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If Greg Martin is correct, and judging by Michael Cheika’s never-ending defence of everything that is wrong, did go wrong, or players that demonstrably perform poorly, it would certainly seem that he has a point – then for pity’s sake, is it not about time we hardened up a bit more up people?

This is the game of rugby, not hopscotch for fragile kiddies, and surely professional coaches, rugby players, their fans, and those at the ARU, and on club boards are thicker skinned than that in this country.

Over the years, in other codes, and even in rugby, certain coaches, have not been unafraid to be bluntly critical of their teams, and even critical of a players given performance, so why can’t Australian union coaches be brave enough to at least on occasion, and where it is not completely inappropriate, do so as well?

Which raises the questions….

Is Greg Martin right about Australia in relation to New Zealand coaches as a whole and not just the exceptions?

And should our coaches stop always treating halftime and post-match interviews and our professional players with kid gloves?

Would the game in Australia benefit from a bit more no-nonsense public candour from our coaches on teams and individual players’ performances rather than tap dancing around the bleeding obvious?

If the answer is indeed yes, I am not suggesting they say individual player’s performances are called ‘rubbish’ per se, but more out of the New Zealand, South African, and even UK coaching handbook where they at least can, and do say things like, “Yeah, [named player] probably had a game he won’t be proud of” or “that certainly wasn’t [named player]’s best performance” or “Our defence was plain ordinary tonight and a few of our players need to take a look at themselves in that area of the game”.

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In Australia, we very rarely see this kind of post-match honesty in rugby union, let alone Gibson’s refreshing candour.

Certainly not often enough from the Wallaby or Super franchise coaching staff.

Do our coaches need to demonstrate a little harder public love and take more of that Harry Potter truth serum before media interviews?

At the very least we will know they really are passionate and give a damn.

As a rugby follower I don’t mind a coach dishing it out in the public arena as long as it is appropriate under the given circumstances.

Not all Australian rugby fans will agree, but for me Gibson’s public bluntness is an injection of badly-needed fresh air and portrayed a coach who, after Round 6 was frustrated at his side’s continuing inability to deliver the game plan to a high degree of competence and the necessary level of performance.

There should be more of it.

There is much to admire about Michael Cheika, but at times he comes across like he is in denial about the state of affairs in some aspects of Australian Super Sugby, and by proxy, the Wallabies.

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If he is, then that is a serious concern.

If it is a front he is putting up, then he needs to end it, and say what he really thinks, not what he thinks the rugby public want to hear him say.

The continuous nature of the “always talk it up” theory wears a bit thin when your national franchises are getting badly shown up in just about every aspect of the game by teams from across the ditch.

In one form or another, and at different times, Cheika and his Wallabies’ sidekick Steven Larkham, seem to be embracing all three approaches.

In Larkham’s case, he at least looks a little perturbed and even angry at the way the Brumbies are performing.

Some will argue that this is because he is their coach, whereas Cheika is no longer at the helm of the Waratahs. Yet one gets the feeling that Larkham’s frustration, and his visible stifled anger in some recent post-match interviews goes deeper.

The Chiefs vs Brumbies game was a wake-up call for Australian rugby to any post-World Cup complacency, and Larkham has never been a shallow thinker.

It is certainly tiresome the lack of acknowledgement that Australian rugby is still some distance behind the world leaders, New Zealand rugby and the All Blacks.

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They seem to be continually moving forward while Australia and the rest of world continually play catch-up.

As the coach of the Wallabies, surely in regards to the Australian Super competition this public embodiment of the French term “laissez faire”, which translated means “leaving things to take their course” publicly shows signs of concern for the here and now state of Australian Super Rugby which feeds the national side with talent.

Surely a voice of concern should come from the top down and not just drawn attention to by the bluntness of Daryl Gibson or any other Super franchise coaches nor indeed just voices in the media.

Surely in the interests of the game, and to show some sort of cohesion between the national side and the teams that feed it, the Wallabies coach should be telling us he is working with Super coaches to improve areas of players’ skill levels because they are not at the level of most of their kKiwi counterparts and that is a concern.

Maybe he is, but if this is the case then why not say it is the case?

This at least shows a head coach who is proactive and thinks the big picture, and let’s not forget it is exactly this type of cohesion and co-operation between All Blacks coaches and their Super Franchises coaches that is a key reason New Zealand rugby and the All Blacks is ahead of the pack.

Surely sidestepping and/or playing down the issue publicly, as he has done on at least three occasions, twice now on Rugby 360, is neither productive nor endears any sort of confidence in the minds of many fans.

The sooner Australian rugby sees itself as one whole, as a collective with one goal to make all Australian rugby strong. And most importantly, acts and talks like it the public arena, and not just on some piece of paper claiming to be the master plan, the better the game will become in this country.

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Cheika’s best effort was to acknowledge that it would be good if we could win more games against the New Zealand sides, but that it’s not worrying him.

It’s not worrying him that the best Australian side sits in ninth position on the overall table?

It’s not worrying him that the Kiwi sides have better skill levels across all their squads?

It’s not worrying him that his go-to sides for Wallaby selection, the Waratahs and the Brumbies, are languishing on the Australasian table.

It’s not bothering him that the Brumbies got a rugby lesson by the Chiefs, and not the first Australian side to do so against the Kiwi sides.

It’s not worrying him that right here, right now, with six rounds still to go, and with three wildcard spots up for grabs in the Australasian conference, it has already become clear that an Australian franchise might only make the finals due the generosity of the conference system or get there legitimately on points by the skin of their teeth?

And almost certainly only one will get there despite some optimism by a few in the Australian media. But stranger things as happened they will say. Maybe. We shall have to wait and see.

And if Cheika thinks Super Rugby has no bearing on Test rugby, then he needs to ask himself this: Which nation has dominated Super Rugby? And which nation has dominated international rugby in that same period?

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Apart from Greg Martin’s belief that New Zealand coaches may be more prepared to be blunt about their team’s poor performances, egos are also put to one side for the good of the game in New Zealand, something Australia has yet to fully master it needs to be said.

Any ego, player or otherwise, that proves they can’t be worked with is eventually, and sometimes rapidly sorted out or filtered out. Unlike here in Australia, egos of star players are not pampered to like rugby pooches.

Only very recently has this begun to change, and it arguably began with Kiwi coach Robbie Deans dumping Quade Cooper from the Test squad and look at the completely ridiculous fallout from that.

Sure Cooper was speaking his mind, as some of you will argue I am advocating, but there is a difference between “telling it like it is” and crossing the boundaries into deliberately malicious, and thinly-disguised personal attacks on a head coach because your personal nose has been put way out of joint. And that was what was at the root of his grievances in not just mine, but others opinion as well.

The difference is also an important one.

Ironically, the experience seemed to harden Cooper up. Funny that.

Rest assured, in New Zealand if a player public called the All Black environment toxic which was an indirect swipe at the head coach and the environment itself that is inhabited by other coaching staff, players and officials, they would never ever put the black jumper on again regardless of the change of coach as happened here in Australia.

I mean seriously could you even see players like Richie McCaw and Dan Carter stooping to those levels of public discourse about the All Blacks and the coaches in the first place?

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Probably because New Zealand rugby and its players have long since ‘hardened up’, or who knows, perhaps the real reason is because McCaw and Carter are simply grownups which may amount to the same thing if truth be told.

Here the kid gloves most often stay on until the storm is over.

Is it about time we hardened up a little more and take them off just a little more often?

For example, the gap between the kiwi and Australian sides is absolutely a bit of a worry. Any rugby fool can see this. Cheika is nobody’s fool, so why can’t he just acknowledge it publicly instead of distancing himself from the problem as he has done so far?

Because it a may well become his problem, if not against the England, then certainly against the All Blacks.

After all, nothing like a little Harry Potter truth serum.

That reminds me, I must stock up. Maybe Daryl Gibson has a spare bottle because his is certainly working well.