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Saturday 24 November 2018. Australia v England. The only Wallaby Test I’d ever attended knowing Australia couldn’t win before the match even started.
But was it really all Michael Cheika’s fault?
It was my 13th visit to Twickenham for a Test involving the Wallabies. I’d even been to the World Cup Final in 2015. But never had I experienced such a foreboding feeling of hopelessness beforehand.
At half time I stood in the lower East Stand surrounded by Englishman who could not believe the score was 13-all. Not because the Wallabies should have been 17-13 up after a bizarre call by Jaco Peyper – but because England had dominated while rarely leaving second gear.
“What is going on with Australian Rugby?” asked one typically chatty Essex boy casually spilling Guinness on the seats in front of him.
I was taken aback, where does one start?
It is too simple to blame Michael Cheika for everything. Unpopular, but true. The risk is that we all fall for the ‘easy’ answer which is rarely the right one.
It is a bit like blaming Donald Trump for all the problems in Washington while turning a blind eye to the state of the swamp beforehand.
For example, why should people like Cameron Clyne, John Eales and Peter Cosgrove, the Bushes, Obamas and Clintons of Australian rugby if you will, escape scrutiny while Cheika, the pantomime villain is kicked from pillar to post?
That Cheika came to power in the unsavoury (some believe orchestrated) circumstances that he did is a symptom – not a cause of the issues.
Again, it’s a bit like obsessing about what the Russians have on Trump. It only tells a small part of the story as to how he ended up in the White House.
This article is not intended to be a defence of Michael Cheika. Yet, the problems run deeper than just bad selections and ‘the Cheika Dictatorship’ so many like to focus on.
The starting point must be the obvious comparisons with Australian Cricket. Arrogant administrators, players dining out off past glories they weren’t around for, high performance directors who perform at anything but a high level.
No matter which way you spin it, Cheika’s meteoric rise to Wallaby coach was rooted in player power and a failure of leadership at board level.
We will never really know what exactly happened on that plane to Argentina when Kurtley Beale was asked to change clothes. Whatever the case and however that all went down, it led to the downfall of an excellent coach in Ewen McKenzie and the acceleration of Michael Cheika’s career.
Cheika’s queue jumping had a load of unintended but quite foreseeable consequences which the administrators failed to consider.
Firstly, subconsciously or otherwise, he became indebted to a nucleus of mainly Waratah players. Enough said there.
Secondly, though nobody will admit it, a split emerged between the traditional powerhouses of Queensland and New South Wales. How could it not when McKenzie, the coach who delivered a Super Rugby title to Ballymore playing sublime rugby was ditched in such sad, atrocious even, circumstances?
Thirdly, there was quite simply nobody else capable of, or ready to step up in the event that Cheika failed. By succeeding McKenzie early, Cheika effectively robbed Australian rugby of other options between 2015 and 2019.
The closest contender now would probably be Dave Wessels, but I think even he would admit he is another two seasons away from being ready for the Wallabies job.
It is this last point that carries with it the most serious and relevant implications for the national side.
Put simply, Cheika is not answerable to anyone. How can he be when there is no obvious replacement? Trotting out Jake White’s name is a bit like Hillary for 2020. A bad idea.
He has also had carte blanche with employing and then standing by his assistants. He talks about accountability but where is it?
Nathan Grey is the defence coach and has had nine lives in one season alone.
Australia were decimated by England, the All Blacks put a century of points on them this year and even Italy looked dangerous.
Yet his job is supposedly safe because we held a Welsh team devoid of any new ideas to three penalties?
I feel sorrier for Simon Raiwalui. I guess that Cheika loved that he was a big bruiser from old school Sydney Club days who liked to get aggressive.
How many blokes from Eastwood or Brothers are looking at their computer screen now ready to send their resumes to Michael Cheika?
The fact is Raiwalui played a fair bit of rugby in England for Sale Sharks and then in Wales for Newport before gaining coaching experience culminating in a job in Biarritz.
He was not ready for the Wallaby position especially when you think about who he replaced, Mario Ledesma.
Stephen Larkham is perhaps the biggest disappointment of the lot. He should have resigned before going along with the selection of Foley at 12 against England. But it seems he has got too comfortable.
Under Larkham’s tutelage, the Wallaby backline is like watching an U/14 team trying to attack an U/18 team. There are individual moments of brilliance and skill but nobody wants to straighten the line. Instead we have triple cut out passes, followed by loop the loop before back peddling and surrender.
Overly elaborate. Cute. Just not right. And that is Larkham’s fault not Cheika’s.
I can only imagine what Larkham’s old team mates Justin Harrison, Owen Finnegan and Toutai Kefu are screaming at their TV screens. Tim Horan and Daniel Herbert are probably saying the same thing too. Something about earning the right to go wide first I reckon.
The fact Larkham is a legend in his own right should not make him immune to criticism just because it is more trendy to beat Trump, I mean Cheika, around the head.
Yes, we will always be hearing from Glen Ella and David Campese because that is to be expected. But when Michael Lynagh and Matt Burke pipe up that is something different.
If Larkham can be criticised, so should other national heroes like Peter Cosgrove and John Eales.
In the pivotal years after 2003, what really did each of them do for grassroots rugby? When every man and his dog can see the problems with the game at grass roots and school boy level, why couldn’t they?
Cosgrove had two separate terms spanning six years on the board of directors between 2007 and 2013. Pivotal years where crucial mistakes were made with far reaching consequences.
The inability to negotiate a free-to-air TV deal, the bungling of the now defunct Australian Rugby Championship and the capitulation to SANZAAR in every respect.
Plummeting performance of Australian school boys teams. Club participation decimated. The list goes on.
Infamously, Eales did play a role in knee capping the Western Force but that is another article for another time and certainly not an accomplishment.
It seemed to many that, for Eales and Cosgrove, sitting on the board of the ARU was just another cushy corporate appointment. They should have done a better job. It is simple as that.
Cheika must be allowed to take the team to the Rugby World Cup next year. He wanted the job, let him see it through and face the music if he fails. That is becoming increasingly likely given the second half capitulation at Twickenham.
But be careful what you wish for. The problems run much deeper than Michael Cheika.