“Players… they read all that stuff.” Michael Cheika’s admission that the Wallabies get rattled by a bit of social media sledging is as refreshing as it is troubling.
Following Australia’s stunning game-of-two-halves win over Argentina a fortnight ago, Cheika was frank in conceding that some honest external appraisals of his side’s woeful form – a run that had led to a slide in the world rankings to No.7 – had taken its toll.
“I’m not really up on social media or media, I don’t really read a lot of it, but players do, you know, they read all that stuff,” Cheika said on the Fox Rugby Podcast last week.
“It gets in their head and it hasn’t been going great and so they don’t think they’re great and then as soon as something happens in the game, negative, which it did early on, you start to get a bit narrow in your view and you start to fear failing — as opposed to going out there to do what you need to do to perform.”
It’s novel and welcome to hear a coach admit that elite professional sportspeople listen to judgement from the outside – from the so-called experts in the mainstream media to the well-considered opinions of rugby tragics and even to the foul-mouthed rants of the furious.
Of course the players hear the noise. There’s hardly anything more irritating than the ridiculous ‘we don’t read the newspapers’ cliché from the coach or player when asked for a reaction to a pertinent issue on the sporting agenda.
It’s farcical to think that they can block it all out. And more importantly, it would be concerning if they did.
To hide underground, to cocoon away from public opinion is feeble and disingenuous. Fans want to know the players and coaches feel something, especially during a tough streak. If the fans are hurting, they want to be heard.
The sporting public doesn’t want players and coaches to be cold and robotic. Fans want to know they give a toss.
Before a Test match, no Wallabies player needs to carry on with the idiotic antics of Conor McGregor before a title fight. But at the same time no one wants to hear another player pretend they have no idea how they’re perceived on the outside. Plus why not use the online criticism as motivation to turn things around?
On top of this, surely Australia’s rugby elite – big bruising men who whack and get whacked by other hard-hitting humans such as Brodie Retallick and Eben Etzebeth – have the resilience to shrug off any flak they cop online, as brutal as it is these days.
The worrying part of Cheika’s confession is that the Wallabies – supposedly fully aware that Australian rugby fans were livid with their woeful recent record – were so limp in the opening half against Argentina in Salta.
The Wallabies were facing the prospect of bagging the Rugby Championship wooden spoon with another loss, and had recorded just two wins from their 11 previous Tests.
Wasn’t this the time to step up with an aggressive attitude and set the tone, at least defensively? If they had read even a slither of comments on social media, the Wallabies would’ve known the fans at least wanted to see some pride in defending their line.
Instead the Pumas busted the Wallabies open with ease. The home side sped to a 31-7 half-time lead. Defence is commonly viewed as a reflection of attitude – and it was pretty flimsy.
We all know what happened next following Cheika’s spray at the break. It’s alarming that it took such a dreadful 40 minutes to whip the Wallabies into action.
And so we’re back to roughly where we were last year: with the dead-rubber Bledisloe III as a chance for the Wallabies to prove they haven’t slipped too far off the pace. Twelve months ago, the Wallabies forwards went up a gear and showed that if there’s a spark, they can match it physically with the All Blacks.
Jack Dempsey and Lukhan Tui were particularly stinging in contact in a memorable 23-18 win in Brisbane.
It was a display that reflected genuine desire to demonstrate the Wallabies had plenty of pride, and breaking their defensive line would take something special.
They need a repeat in Yokohama next weekend if Cheika wants Aussie fans to believe he’s the man for the job, and that means extracting that Salta second-half magic from the first blow of the whistle.