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The decisions Michael Chieka must make if the Wallabies are to succeed

Michael Cheika and his team are under fire again. (Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)
Roar Guru
2nd July, 2018
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2235 Reads

You are the coach and your team is trailing on the scoreboard about 50 minutes into a tough Test match, when you get your first decent attacking opportunity in quite a while from an opposition penalty and subsequent attacking line-out near their try line.

You have the biggest ball-running freak of a tighthead prop, perhaps ever to play rugby, on the bench and your veteran tighthead Sekope Kepu is tiring. So clearly you substitute them to improve your odds of scoring quickly, right?

That is what I would have thought, but that is not what Michael Cheika did during the final Test match against Ireland this year – he left Taniela Tupou on the bench for another couple of minutes.

The Wallabies did score off that line-out, but in a game that came down the wire, putting the Tongan Thor on to punch across the line could only have improved the odds of a quick score, which was vital when the Wallabies were chasing the clock.

This observation is not intended to be a prelude to another Cheika-bashing article, because he did well as a coach in the Ireland series.

After the last couple of years of Wallabies disappointments and debacles, Cheika has clearly had a good, hard think about the way he coaches over the off-season and has improved.

Notable changes are that he has allowed the Wallabies to develop a more comprehensive kicking game, while he previously stubbornly insisted on ball in hand at all costs, which was losing them games.

The Wallabies’ kicking game against Ireland was far from perfect, but there was a fair bit of promise which will only be built on when the Rugby Championship comes around.

Cheika is also noticeably calmer in the way that he interacts with the team and the media, which can be a good thing as his over-the-top displays of emotion from previous years could only be counterproductive to getting clear messages across.

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However, Cheika has improvements left in his game too and the Kepu and Tupou substitution example highlights one of them.

Taniela Tupou

(Photo by Jono Searle/Getty Images)

He does not appear to think entirely clearly in the heat of the moment, when he is responsible for making critical substitution decisions and communicating key messages to the team.

This means that he is not enabling his team to respond in the best way possible to opportunities like in the example above, or when something goes wrong.

An example of where something has gone wrong in a game that needed correct, decisive action from Cheika, was when Matt Giteau was concussed in the 27th minute during the World Cup final in 2015.

Cheika had Kurtley Beale and Matt Toomua on the bench and chose to substitute on Beale, despite the fact that Giteau was the Wallabies defensive linchpin and that before Beale’s improvement in defence post-World Cup, Toomua was a far better defender.

The subsequent two tries both involved defensive errors by Beale and it was game, set, match to the All Blacks.

Would the Wallabies have won had Cheika sent on Toomua?

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Probably not given that they were playing arguably the finest rugby team ever assembled, but I believe Cheika’s decision reduced the odds of an upset.

It is interesting to compare Cheika’s decision to substitute players according to the pecking order with All Blacks coach Steve Hansen’s decision to substitute Sonny-Bill Williams for Conrad Smith in the second half.

Williams’ power immediately proved decisive, opening up the Wallabies’ defence and putting Ma’aa Nonu through a game for a decisive try.

The comparison highlights the differences between the conduct of the two coaches during games, Hanson’s calm demeanour allows him to keep a clear head and make good decisions, while Cheika’s passion does not.

That sort of passion is great from fans, but Cheika is the coach and needs to continue working on toning it down so he can effectively guide his team at critical moments.

Finally, it is clear that the competition in the upcoming World Cup is going to be closer than any Cup since at least 2007.

The All Blacks are still the best in the World but since key players from their golden generation have retired, they have more off days and less depth than they used to.

Behind them, any of Ireland, England, South Africa and Australia could cause an upset and knock them out of the competition, and then who gets the silverware will come down to how teams play on the day.

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This highlights the importance of Cheika continuing to look for these sorts of marginal improvements, because they have a chance at leading to glory.