In the aftermath of the Ewen McKenzie saga, some of the cooler heads at the (then) ARU would have been focused on the legal fallout, others the cultural damage whilst some of the more astute may have been concerned with the stability and reputational damage of the ARU.
Regardless of the truth as to what really went on, the playing out of rumour and innuendo with potential court cases is a nightmare for any code and has the potential for lasting damage.
Let’s face it, once a Prime Minister has been necked to save the ‘team’, a precedent has been set and the temptation to remove a leader who isn’t performing to satisfy short term problems has been proven time and again to alienate the supporters, regardless of which team you are on.
So, in a weak negotiating position, the ARU made their bed and gave Michael Cheika the power to run the team as he sees fit. On paper, he ticks the boxes with success at Leinster and the Waratahs.
From the ARU’s position, why would you let a coach of his pedigree go and coach elsewhere?
In his history is a partial clue as to why RA are prepared to overlook the years of disaster since the 2015 world cup.
At Leinster, Cheika took over a team in disarray before guiding them to a semi-final win in his first season – as he did with the Wallabies in 2014/15. In the following years, success eluded Cheika at Leinster (just as it did with the Wallabies) other than a Celtic League title until new blood was installed in the coaching ranks.
The changes resulted in the 2009 Heinekin Cup Final win and the 09/10 Celtic league title.
Fast forward to Cheika’s time with the Waratahs and, again within a season, he has the team on top and followed that up with second position the next year, before bowing out in the semis.
Of note during his time with the Waratahs is his creation of combinations in the back line including Nick Phipps, Bernard Foley, Adam Ashley-Cooper and Israel Folau.
So, in the above can be seen the seeds of where we are today. Initial success built on extracting more out of players through motivation and common goal seeking (remember the golf clubs?) but the inevitable decline when the underlying tactical deficiencies are exposed.
He has tried for a long time to unearth the next nugget of gold.
Cheika is clearly seeking the next Stephen Larkham, a fullback who became one of the greatest flyhalves Australia has ever had. In my mind, it explains the reason he consistently places players out of position, has inexplicable selections and then discards overseas players who may have improved their game, but don’t meet his expectations.
Beyond that, Cheika doesn’t seem to be able to evolve his game plan.
Cheika needs smart coaches and innovative people around him. Personally, I don’t think the coaches he has have demonstrated that and he has opted for a balance of unearthing talent and trying the crazy in the hope that it will eventually click.
The problem Rugby Australia faces now, is that what is driving away supporters and should have run its course by now is still going on, and the flashes of brilliance when it all comes together are now seized upon by Cheika as vindication.
The reality is that Rugby Australia suffered reputational damage during the McKenzie debacle. After Salta, I opined that Cheika is going nowhere, as Rugby Australia need to display support, despite overwhelmingly poor results, of a coach having his way as a sort of cathartic cleansing and reset of the reputation of the governing body.
I suspect they are looking long term at last. What future coach would want to lead a team where the players have got rid of them and who’s governing body necked the leader to save the team when results weren’t going their way?
Cheika even stated he was aware of it with his ‘Collingwood’ analogy.
Rugby Australia are showing they can hang tough despite what Cheika is doing, for the sake of a future coach.
If, in the meantime in Japan (like 2009) Cheika resurrects the results, it will seem like a masterstroke. If he doesn’t they can quite rightly say they supported him through thick and thin and he had every chance of doing it his way.
Today, and I quote, “You have to be unequivocal, that’s the way we’ve been, quite consistent. We’re supporting him absolutely,” Rugby Australia are demonstrating just that.
As much as I don’t like Cheika and think Rugby Australia have done the game a massive disservice in recent times, in supporting Cheika I think they are right.
We are consigned to the vagaries of Cheika for the near future, to ensure our long term future.