Fresh from delivering the worst year for the Wallabies since 1958, Michael Cheika is reported to have a roadshow with Rugby Australia’s high-performance manager scheduled next week to visit the Australian Super Rugby franchises.
On this tour, the pair will aim to persuade the Australian Super Rugby sides to give up ten days of pre-season training with their Wallabies in January while Cheika runs a training camp, and to have key Wallabies training and playing workload’s reduced by 20% during the Super Rugby season.
During ordinary times, many Wallabies supporters might regard this sort of a deal as the holy grail, finally following in the footsteps of better teams like New Zealand and Ireland, to put the national team first. However, these are not ordinary times, with Cheika taking the Wallabies backwards since 2016, to the Wallabies current lowest ranking of seventh place in the World Rugby rankings.
That is indicative of far bigger problems than player workload management by Super Rugby clubs and after such an extended period of failure, Australian Rugby supporters are unlikely to have any confidence that he has the answers to turn things around.
Furthermore, Cheika has had opportunities to practice what he preaches on managing player workload management but flogs his best players during the international season by playing them constantly. Take, for example, his decision to run an already injured David Pocock during the game against Italy in November, when he had alternatives who were quite capable of supporting Michael Hooper in the back row, during a game against the lowly ranked Italians.
After that, for Cheika to have the hide to ask the Brumbies to give up their talisman for three or four games next season for the sake of the national team is beyond belief.
On the Super Rugby side of the discussion, while 2018 only saw mild and inconsistent improvements in the Super Rugby franchises, they are improvements that need to be nurtured.
The Waratahs managed to get into the semi-finals after two years of not making finals footy in 2016 and 2017, with coach Daryl Gibson finally seeming to work out how to get a good game of footy out of his Wallaby-laden team.
The Rebels managed a best-ever ninth spot finish, with their new coach Dave Wessels and his merged Rebels/Force squad.
The Reds managed their best finish in five seasons under new coach Brad Thorn.
The Brumbies were the only team to go backward under new coach Dan McKellar, falling out of the finals for the first time in six seasons, though improved towards the end of the season with four wins from their last five games. Notably, David Pocock returned from injury layoff during the second part of the season, showing why he is essential to the fortunes of that club.
All of this shows that the Australian Super Rugby revival is in its infancy and is fragile, so there needs to be a chance of a very significant payoff in terms of Wallabies success, for the Super Rugby clubs to risk their own fortunes by resting Wallabies players. From their perspective, it must be very hard to see how Cheika’s record as coach offers any realistic prospect of that sort of payoff, even if players are rested.
Of course this week we had news of Rugby Australia fluffing around with Jake White’s offer to take over and apply his World Cup-winning coaching abilities to the Wallabies. So there doesn’t even seem to be much point holding out hope that by giving up their best players, the Super clubs might be helping out a new, more capable coach to win our national team back some respect.
So really what resting Wallabies players in 2019 would amount to, is to sacrifice Australian rugby’s chances of rebuilding the sport in Australia through Super Rugby improvement. All to provide a coach and a peak organisation who are out of their depths, with a fig leaf in lieu of a plan for the next nine months.
Personally, I can’t see how that is worth it for the franchises, I reckon most fans have now given up on the Wallabies in 2019 and would just love to see their Super Rugby teams play some good footy in the first half of the year. So really, the franchises should dig their toes in and hold over on agreeing to any sort of central player management until after the World Cup.
Roll on 2023.