Michael Cheika has anger problems that need to be addressed by the Australian Rugby Union. He can’t seem to control himself in the coaching box when things go against his team.
And he has a militant tendency to demonise his opponents and officials for mistakes created by his own coaching or his own players.
For the second time this season, Cheika has gone rogue after a Test loss in New Zealand. The Wallabies go to Europe with an improved team but the tarnished brand of the Whingeing Wallabies.
Psychologists called it “tranference of anger,” getting into a fury about behaviour you are responsible for but blame others for actually creating it. The problem with “tranference” is that it deflects taking the proper remedial action required to fix the difficulties that have created the anger.
I have no doubt officials around the world have lost respect for Cheika, and increasingly for the Wallabies. I have no doubt, either, that this loss of respect will be reflected (sub-consciously) in decisions going against the Wallabies in 50-50 incidents.
All the wash-up from Bledisloe Cup 3:
» LORD: Nick Phipps shines
» Eight talking points
» What changes should the Wallabies make?
» DIY player ratings
» Read the match report
» Re-live the action with our live blog
» Watch the highlights
For the ARU, there is a great danger that New Zealand rugby might turn its back on Australian rugby when in the past, many times actually, it has been New Zealand rugby that has saved Australian rugby with financial arrangements, Tests and co-operation about players moving into New Zealand competitions.
In New Zealand, rugby officials are warning their Australian counterparts that they fear that within 15 years rugby will be a minor sport in Australia. They are appalled by Cheika’s behaviour.
The chief executive of the ARU, Bill Pulver, must give Cheika an official warning about bringing rugby into disrepute, with repercussions for him remaining as coach if this warning is ignored.
This was done in 2003 when a raging Eddie Jones was actually locked up in a room for a couple of hours after a Test to stop him from venting his spleen on the match officials.
The point is that officials like national coaches – and Michael Cheika obviously comes within this purview – cannot be allowed to trash and confront officials and opponents the way Cheika has done with the Wallabies and with the Waratahs.
In Australia, supporters are turning off the Wallabies as the poor crowds to the home Tests suggest. It will be interesting to see if the Wallabies can attract the sort of crowds in Europe that, say, the All Blacks do invariably.
The ARU needs to recognise that the Australian coach is a significant figure, or should be, in world rugby. Look at the respect Bob Dwyer and Rod Macqueen command throughout the rugby world. Cheika does not have that respect.
I don’t think that World Rugby, for instance, will listen to him on improvements in the game and so on, the way Dwyer and Macqueen are listened to. Or Steve Hansen is listened to, for that matter.
This means that the influence for good that someone like Cheika and the ARU should exercise will not be created.
The loss of this influence is a loss for Australian rugby and the good things it can bring to the world game.
Cheika’s anger, his madcap rants against his opposition and referees, and his indulgence in conspiracy theories against the Wallabies, is tarnishing the image current Wallabies squad, also.
The annoying aspect to all of this is that Cheika had some good things to talk about at his press conference, if he had actually wanted to.
The Wallabies had given a team that is being touted as the best one hell of a Test. Why wouldn’t he acknowledge the quality of this All Blacks side and make the point that playing against them is a privilege that could create a dominant Wallabies side sooner rather than later?
Despite conceding their third highest points total against the All Blacks at Eden Park in their 37-10 loss, the new-look Wallabies have plenty to be positive about. With their huge second row, a number eight with size and power and two big centres, they looked like a champion team in the making for about 50 minutes of a niggling, often dramatic, intense and sometimes brilliantly-played Test match.
Instead of the team receiving praise for their performance and potential, the Wallabies are being dubbed by the overseas rugby media as The Whingeing Wallabies.
At Eden Park, for 31 years now the graveyard of Wallabies dreams of defeating the All Blacks, a tremendous Test was played.
The drama, the ebb and flow of play, the big hits, the set piece contests, the slashing runs, the crucial missed kicks at goal and, yes, some controversial refereeing decisions provided the Opera on Powerade that is modern Test match rugby.
This is what should remembered about the best Test this season. It was thrilling rugby, with attack and counter-attack. For drama and excitement, it left the tepid Kangaroos-Kiwis Test played at Perth for dead.
What we saw at Eden Park was Test rugby at its best. It was rugby played on the line. The unpredictability of play wrecked havoc with the emotions as an initial dominant series of play by the Wallabies, for instance, were frequently thwarted by an All Blacks side that was sensational in enhancing a turnover into points for themselves with length of the field breakouts.
The All Black powerhouse Julian Savea, for instance, scored a try towards the end of the Test that culminated two minutes of play! It started with a break out by Dean Mumm from an interception that saw him gallop away for what seemed likely to be a Wallabies try and ended with Savea bursting through to the try line like a runaway bus.
Cheika has finally accepted that size, some skill and a lot of mongrel is essential for a world-class second row. Rory Arnold, who ran over the tackling machine Matt Todd to score his try, and Adam Coleman must be pencilled in as the long term second rowers for the Wallabies.
The Wallabies pack won 65 per cent of possession against a very good All Blacks pack. This allowed for 138 Wallabies carries to the 90 by the All Blacks. 68 per cent of the match was played in the All Blacks’ half of the field. The Wallabies won 107 rucks and mauls to the 45 won by the All Blacks.
They only had to make 62 tackles to the 144 made by the All Blacks. They even won the penalty count, ten against them to the 11 incurred by the All Blacks, despite the fact that Cheika was critical of the refereeing.
The direction of these statistics in most Tests would have resulted in a win for the Wallabies against any other team than the All Blacks with their brilliant counter-attacking play.
Lopeti Timani is the man, the big man, with his tackling and power-surging running, and is now the obvious successor to Wycliff Palu as the Wallabies number 8.
The Wallabies need to find a number six (if it is not to be Scott Fardy) to complement the new size in the Wallabies pack.
In the backs, the two new centres, Reece Hodge and Samu Kerevi, did well while Kerevi was on the field. I believe that Kerevi should be played in his natural position of inside-centre and Hodge, with his organising skills, is better suited to the outside centre position, too.
Israel Folau played his best game of the season. He had 17 carries and ran for 108 metres. Dane Haylett-Petty had 17 carries. Stephen Moore, in far and away his best Test of the year, had 12 carries, all of them the powerhouse stuff that showed Moore at his best.
But once again Folau did not score a try. More importantly, he didn’t look like scoring a try. Fullback is not his position in Test rugby. He is like a Melbourne Cup favourite carrying too much weight in this position.
He needs to play in the simpler position of wing, where his catching and running skills are given the maximum exposure.
That is the good news.
The bad news is the fall-out of a disastrous media conference that Michael Cheika gave after the Test.
At the conference, Cheika was asked to comment on the All Blacks’ 18th successive Test win, a record sequence for a top tier rugby nation and one of the great achievements by any team in the history of rugby.
Here is Cheika’s response. It was clearly prepared in advanced. Its seething anger is unparalleled in media conferences by rugby coaches, aside from Cheika’s ranting after the Wellington Bledisloe Cup Test earlier this year.
“I don’t think they want my comment, anyway, they don’t, they dressed us up as clowns today so they wouldn’t really want our comment, it’s not like they respect our comment so we won’t make one. It was on the front page of the paper … that’s the same guy that reported the supposed bug, isn’t it. Where’d that come from? If that’s the way it is that’s fine, but they don’t need our comment … It was on the front page of the paper, bro. They put our crest on it.”
The response was in connection with a stupid, provocative illustration on the front page of Saturday’s New Zealand Herald of an angry Cheika, with a red nose attachment and in clown’s clothing, and tagged with the headline ‘Send in the clowns. What’s cheeky Cheika got up his sleeve to thwart the All Blacks’ record run?’
The point to make here is that the cartoon was clearly the work of the New Zealand Herald. This was no input from the All Blacks. Moreover, the cartoon was in a sort of retaliation of a similar sort of cartoon run in The Daily Telegraph (Sydney) before the final of Rugby World Cup 2016 that showed Richie McCaw as a grub: “Ritchetty grub stands in the Wallabies way … He’s been bugging Australia for years with his grubby interpretation of rugby’s rules.”
McCaw was shown in the All Blacks jersey with the silver fern.
There was no response from McCaw or the All Blacks. Nor should there have been.
It is, I’m afraid, Loony Tunes territory, conspiratorial theorising gone mad, for Cheika to believe that the New Zealand Herald was working in cahoots with the All Blacks to demean the Wallabies jersey and Cheika in the process.
Yet Cheika somehow convinced himself and captain Stephen Moore “it was disrespectful” that there had been this massive attack from the All Blacks camp on him and the Wallabies.
Cheika then doubled down on this conspiratorial theorising against the All Blacks. He was asked by a startled New Zealand reporter if he’d have a beer with the All Blacks. “We haven’t been invited,” he replied. “We had a reception after the Wellington game so we did that there but we haven’t been invited.”
My understanding from people in the know is that this year Cheika has brought in a policy that prohibits the Wallabies from socialising with the All Blacks in their dressing room after Tests. The invitation is always there, apparently, but Cheika’s Wallabies are prevented from taking it up.
The point here is that, while All Blacks fans and reporters can be and often are obnoxious, as in the constant booing of Quade Cooper, the All Blacks themselves have traditionally been absolutely courteous and respectful of their opponents in public and within the confines of the dressing rooms and so on.
The documentary of the wonderful 1986 Wallabies after their historic victory at Eden Park, the last Wallabies victory there against the All Blacks, showed Brian Lochore, the All Blacks coach, in the Wallabies’ dressing room humbly shaking the hands of the joyful Wallabies and their coaching staff.
Steve Hansen’s response to Cheika’s rant is illustrative of this respect for the opposition that is ingrained in New Zealand rugby.
“You’ve got to be bigger than that, haven’t you? I’ve been dressed up as a clown myself. You don’t want to take it to heart, otherwise it will break you. We’ve got no control over what the media do. You’ve just got to be careful you don’t take it too seriously. He’s probably a little upset and just leave it at that.”
Told about Cheika’s suggestion that the All Blacks did not, in fact, respect the Wallabies, Hansen replied: “That’s rubbish. We respect them immensely. What he’s got to remember is that, just because over the years there’s a fierce competition and things happen, it doesn’t mean you don’t respect them. Our guys respect them a lot – we want to war with these guys – so what’s the point of winning meaning you’re not respecting them?”
Hansen then got to another issue that had dominated the media coverage of the Test, while it was still being played, when he was asked about Henry Speight’s “try” being disallowed following a clear shoulder charge by Dane Haylett-Petty on the chasing Julian Savea.
“Did he change his ground and did he drop his shoulder into (Savea)? Yes, is that allowed? No. Unfortunately, that’s the way it is … If you look at the one Dane Coles (the potential penalty try), Foley was just about tackling him. Swings and roundabouts. He got pulled up for one and let go with one. That’s what rugby is about … You just got to accept what happens on the park and leave it there … Was it critical? Well, yeah, the try would have been critical, there’s no doubt about that but it wasn’t awarded because the referee felt that the laws had been broken, and he’s the sole judge.”
Compare this considered and informed attitude to Michael Cheika’s response to the incident: “Obviously I can’t say anything because they’ve got you by the throat. But I’ve just never seen shepherding from behind before. Before any of that, though, we’ve got to own our mistakes.”
During his commentary, Rod Kafer let his bias get the better of his judgment and vented his spleen against referee Nigel Owens and the TMO Shaun Veldsman for their decision on the incident.
“Nigel Owens should never referee a Test again … disgraceful decision … you can do whatever you want to running behind the ball carrier.”
Wrong, wrong, wrong. Kafer and Cheika should be ashamed of themselves for refusing to acknowledge that the decision was tough on the Wallabies but the correct one.
Let us go to the law book. “Law 10 – Foul Play. 1c OBSTRUCTION: Blocking the tackler. A player must not voluntarily move or stand in a position that prevents an opponent from tackling a ball-carrier.”
There are no ifs or buts in the law. If a tackler is blocked or obstructed, a penalty is awarded against the player doing the obstruction.
The law is a strict liability requirement, although referees tend to extend some common sense in the case of an obstruction a long way away from the ball carrier. In the case of Julian Savea chasing Henry Speight, he could have, in theory, hunted down Speight even though this outcome was unlikely.
Patrick McKendry in the New Zealand Herald, in my view, gave the correct view of the incident and its repercussions for the Wallabies: “It was a poor decision on Haylett-Petty’s part. Speight, who started on the left wing but was drafted into centre following the injury to Samu Kerevi, was away. He had the angle on Savea and would have scored regardless to even the scores at 15-15 with the conversion to come, but alas for the Wallabies it was ruled out after Haylett-Petty changed his line and shoved his shoulder into Savea’s, completely putting the All Black off his stride.”
Cheika is coming to a crossroads in his coaching of the Wallabies. He is putting together a side, especially with the influx of younger, bigger players, that has the potential to challenge the All Blacks in the statistics and on the points on the board in the near future.
But there is a flaw in Cheika’s coaching method that could destroy this growth in the team. He has an abrasive personality that seems to be transmitted to his players so that they can’t seem to distinguish between really hard and legal play with niggling, stupid and illegal play.
Haylett-Petty’s mind explosion is an example of the niggling, stupid play that could destroy the promise this Wallabies side is showing.
For the Wallabies to change their mentality, they need the coach to reform. Cheika needs to channel his anger into constructive, hard-headed coaching of a constructive, hard-headed, tough-minded, shrewd, controlled Wallabies team.
Is Cheika capable of turning himself into this sort of coach? The future of this Wallabies side, for better or for worse, depends on the answer.