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It’s likely Michael Cheika would’ve been both annoyed and a bit perplexed by his boss’ “pass mark” comment last week.
When asked about the prospects for the Wallabies in their upcoming European tour in which they face Wales, Italy and England, Rugby Australia CEO Raelene Castle said they will be “very confident they can come home with three wins”.
Castle was stern and forthright, perhaps exasperated – like many Wallabies fans – following another Bledisloe Cup hammering a few days earlier in Yokohama.
“That’s the start point, that’s the pass mark from where they are, from their perspective,” she said. “That’s the expectation that certainly Michael’s setting for them and there’s no reason why they can’t do that.”
It might be going a bit far to suggest that Castle’s words will be ringing in Cheika’s ears before kick-off in Cardiff on Saturday. But if just one loss equates to less than a pass – that is, a tour failure – and follows another woeful international season, then how confident can he be about hanging onto his job beyond this year?
The failures are stacking high during the Cheika era. They failed to beat England in a 3-0 home series defeat in 2016, they failed to beat Ireland in a 2-1 home series defeat earlier this year.
In between, they failed to beat Scotland in Sydney and were less than impressive in wins over Fiji and Italy. And in the Rugby Championship over the last three years, there have been few reasons to believe that the future is bright.
The statistics are stark this year: the Wallabies have lost seven of their ten Tests to slump to seventh in the world rankings.
They were thrashed 37-20 by the All Blacks in Japan a fortnight ago to sink to a 3-0 Bledisloe whitewash, and that followed a great escape in Salta and their first defeat to Argentina in Australia in 35 years.
Castle made her “pass mark” statement at a media event to announce a partnership with the Australian Army in Sydney to share facilities and leadership development, so it’s difficult to decipher whether it was a pre-mediated public warning shot to Cheika to start getting some results less than a year out from the World Cup.
The Wallabies’ brand is at a seriously low ebb and only some spirited spring tour victories can lift them off the canvas.
Australian cricket is perhaps the only other sport in the country grappling with an inferior public perception. Castle, Cheika and a large group of senior coaches and administrators at Rugby Australia might’ve felt a bit jittery watching the bloodshed unfold at Cricket Australia.
The speed and ruthlessness of the sackings highlight that within professional sport, there’s a high standard set for the national team to be both victorious and virtuous.
At least Justin Langer will be cut a bit of slack given his two best batsmen – Steve Smith and David Warner – have been missing during a 5-0 one-day international series loss to England, a 1-0 Test defeat to Pakistan and a 3-0 T20 loss to Pakistan.
Cheika won’t be cut any slack as he’s got close to a full squad to choose from. Imagine if the Wallabies’ two best players – say David Pocock and Will Genia or Israel Folau – weren’t available over the last year.
And because Cheika’s got a near fully-fit squad to choose from and he desperately needs wins to keep his job, the European Tests aren’t a time for experimentation. He doesn’t have the luxury to give more game time to Jack Maddocks, Jake Gordon, Jermaine Ainsley or Tom Banks to find out if they’re Test-quality players.
Cheika has little choice but to adopt a short-term November philosophy of banking wins. Given Castle’s comment, he may be a dead man walking if the Wallabies lose to Wales and December could turn into a European vacation.