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How Michael Cheika deflected the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in Brisbane

Michael Cheika and his team are under fire again. (Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)
Expert
11th September, 2018
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5905 Reads

The celebrated college American Football coach Woody Hayes once said, “There’s nothing that cleanses your soul like getting the hell kicked out of you.”

If there was no hell around, Hayes would raise it anyway. He once stormed on to the field during an Ohio State-Michigan game to issue some choice words of advice to the referee, then proceeded to rip up the sideline markers one by one before hurling the last flag javelin-like into the crowd. Hayes was ejected from the game, suspended for the next match and fined $1000.

His attacks on news reporters were notoriously unbridled. During the derby game between the Buckeyes and the Wolverines in 1977, Hayes decided that cameraman Mike Freedman was standing a little too close for comfort after a busted play and put him down with a hard right to the sternum.

After the match he said to the assembled pressmen, “You have somebody stick it in your face every week and see how you like it.”

Michael Cheika must have felt something similar over the past month. If you had asked him at the start of the season to nominate the players who would be part of his core group approaching the 2019 World Cup, the names of Israel Folau, Tevita Kuridrani, Bernard Foley, David Pocock, Adam Coleman and Sekope Kepu would all be high on the list.

If you told him that all would be unavailable for a critical third-round game in the Rugby Championship against the Springboks, he would probably have shaken his head in disbelief – in a sanitised moment.

But that is exactly what happened at Lang Park on Saturday evening. With Kuridrani suffering a long-term injury, Kepu and Foley looking jaded and in need of a rest, and Folau, Pocock and Coleman all withdrawing from the team in the course of the build-up, it seemed like a conspiracy of fate against the Wallaby head coach.

The media vultures were circling overhead, with Cheika under apparent pressure from Rugby Australia to produce results before the end of the Rugby Championship in order to keep his job. Their slings and arrows were all properly primed and ready to fire.

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Michael Cheika Australia Rugby Union Wallabies 2017

(Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

In the event, the Cassandras were sent home bitterly disappointed. Australia scraped past South Africa in a tense and unmemorable match by 23 points to 18 – but it was always going to be a test of character rather than skills, and they passed it.

With so many key players absent, the leadership onus fell upon new combinations in all three rows of the scrum, in the back three and, most importantly, in the midfield.

In this area, Cheika chose to rest Foley and experiment with the untested combination of Kurtley Beale at 10 and the European-based Matt Toomua at 12 outside scrumhalf Will Genia.

The new combination resulted in some immediate improvements on defence and in the kicking game off the tee. Toomua took over the goal-kicking duties with Reece Hodge available for longer-range efforts, and they recorded five successes out of six attempts between them.

Defensively, Toomua’s presence allowed Australia to up their line-speed in the early phases off the set-piece. Head to 2:22 on the following reel:

As the ball sails over the top, presumably intended for Pieter-Steph du Toit to collect, the Wallaby backline is up faster than their Springbok counterpart with Toomua in the van, and he gets to the ball first to score a cheap try.

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The difference between Matt Toomua and Bernard Foley is Toomua’s relish for front-on ‘stop-tackling’. The line-speed the Wallabies were able to develop with Toomua plugged in between Michael Hooper and Reece Hodge at defensive lineouts was a big improvement.

Here Hodge has the job of organizing a compact block of four backline defenders rushing up on their targets, with Marika Koroibete doing what he does best – sticking close to Hodge’s outside shoulder and looking for someone to hit. Fullback Dane Haylett-Petty has responsibility for the outside man on the far side of the field.

Meanwhile, Kurtley Beale was moved into Foley’s role in the tramlines at lineout time. This adjustment makes a lot of sense, with Beale able to use his back three experience to defend on the end of the line if play comes back to him, or drop into acting fullback if it goes towards the openside wing:

On this occasion, the Springboks unsuccessfully tried to exploit Beale with a trick-play back to the site of the original lineout:

Beale sees the play early and protects the forwards inside him from the potential overlap by jumping out quickly on to South African number 8 Warren Whiteley.

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Even when Beale and Toomua were forced to defend together from short-range scrums, they looked solid and were able to repel the Boks’ strongest ball-carrier in the backs, Damian de Allende:

Predictably it was much more of a mixed bag on attack, with so little training time for the new combination to gel. On the plus side, the set-up with Toomua at first receiver and Beale at second generated the line break which led ultimately to the Wallabies’ first try of the game (0:57 on the reel):

Later in the first half, Beale straightened and broke well over the advantage line in between South Africa’s two smallest defenders, Faf de Klerk and Elton Jantjies, from another lineout. This created a situation from which Australia really should have scored an easy try:

The Springboks’ right winger, Makazole Mapimpi, fired much too far upfield on first phase, and was in no position to recover if the Wallabies continued to move the ball through the hands of Matt Toomua and their three other backs (Koroibete is out of shot on the left) out to the left on second phase. Toomua has his hand up but Will Genia made a mistake and went short through the forwards and Rory Arnold:

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There were also a handful of first-half misfires which illustrated that the depth of understanding – which already exits for Foley and Beale due to their time together at the Waratahs – is still a work in progress for the new combination:

The second of these examples is probably the most interesting of the three. Beale often prefers to run across the field on an arc from first receiver. I should emphasize that this is not a problem in itself – Wallaby coach Stephen Larkham was himself mainly an arc runner as a player – but it does require adjustments by the potential receivers around him.

Larkham always used to have Dan Herbert, Jason Little, Tim Horan or Stirling Mortlock running hard ‘unders’ lines outside him, and they did the job of fixing the inside defence for him as he floated wide to connect with the outside backs. But that new feel for the right running lines takes time to develop and become automatic.

Here, the two forwards outside Beale (Allan Alaalatoa and Lukhan Tui) are paralysed by the sight of Beale running straight towards them and Matt Toomua is disconnected, having dropped deep expecting to kick from the pocket.

Summary
As Woody Hayes’ feisty wife, Anne, used to say when questioned about her husband’s fiery temper: “Divorce Woody? Never! But there were plenty of times I wanted to murder him!”

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With the World Cup in Japan now just one calendar year away, there is little to be gained by Rugby Australia divorcing Michael Cheika. Some scribes writing about the sport may want to murder him on occasion, and that is fine – at least if they can be sure ‘Cheik’ will not exact a Hayes-style retribution!

But divorce? That is a step too far.

Michael Cheika Wallabies

(Photo by Jason O’Brien/Getty Images)

If Cheika can get most of his leadership group back, and add others like Jack Dempsey and Samu Kerevi into the mix, he has good shot at winning five of the last seven matches remaining in 2018. That would certainly be enough for him to keep his job until 2019 – and rightly so.

There is a definite opportunity to improve the kicking games and defensive structures with Matt Toomua and Kurtley Beale at 10 and 12. Toomua’s compact, powerful presence in the middle helps line-speed and allows Beale to spend more time defending on the edge or in the backfield, where he has a lot of experience and is best suited.

The attacking understanding between the two will take more time. In the meantime, Michael Cheika and his Wallaby charges have the chance to prove that a getting the hell kicked out of them by New Zealand has indeed cleansed their rugby souls.

Every genuine Australian rugby supporter will be hoping that a good quote becomes reality.