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Will Cheika really let Larkham take the fall?

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15th December, 2018
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Georgina Robinson from the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Michael Cheika’s job as Wallabies head coach is likely safe but that Stephen Larkham’s position as Wallabies attack coach is in question.

Robinson reported that while Cheika was fiercely loyal to defence coach Nathan Grey and skills coach Mick Byrne, sacking Larkham was a change that Cheika might be prepared to make. Robinson also reported that new forward coach Simon Raiwalui may also get the chop.

A lot of Wallabies fans will undoubtedly be hoping these are just leaks being made by troublemakers who are privy to board deliberations but which have no substance, because the implications are fraught. Sacking assistants for an all-round failure of a team but leaving the boss in charge would always a dubious proposition and would be another black mark against Rugby Australia in the eyes of the fans.

For all criticisms that might be directed towards the likes of Grey for his musical chairs defensive schemes and Raiwalui for the Wallabies dodgy scrum and lineout, both of these men have clearly had to coach with one hand tied behind their back due to Cheika’s poor selections. None of Cheika’s preferred 10-12-13-15 this season are good defenders, he selects hookers who can’t throw and he chooses two No.7s, compromising the lineout.

Of course Grey and Raiwalui should be subject to their fair share of blame for a poor season, but that has to be done in the context of what they are given to work with by Cheika.

The notion of making Larkham the fall guy for Cheika’s failure would be degrees worse again that if Grey and Raiwalui were dumped. In 2017 the Wallabies attack was good – good enough to get the side four tries per game. The sources of failure for the attack in 2018 were highlighted by multiple well-qualified commenters. The lineout, discipline and fatigue management in defence; the non-selection of a No.8 with go forward; and the lack of a kicking game all cruelled Larkham’s ability to get the team scoring points.

Stephen Larkham at the Canberra Vikings

(AJF Photography)

Moreover, Cheika thought enough of Larkham’s work with the Wallabies since 2015 to anoint him as heir apparent and appoint him full-time into his role in 2017. The idea that Cheika then drew the conclusion that Larkham became irreconcilably incompetent within 12 months is simply not believable. Without being party to what has gone on, it is only possible to speculate. Perhaps the two had interpersonal conflicts this year or perhaps Cheika and Rugby Australia see Larkham as a significant enough sacrifice to satiate the criticisms of fans that they ‘do something’ about the Wallabies performances this year.

Irrespective of the reason, it would be very wrong for Cheika to throw Larkham under the bus to save himself. Plenty of fans would hope that he would resign before he allowed that to happen.

Aside from the moral implications, there is the practical matter of which assistant coach is going to want to work for Cheika if he does that. He will have already ruined the last bloke’s career and reputation. Who is going to see a one-season gig with the Wallabies in 2019 as anything but a career-limiting move?

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We are all supposed to be finding out what Rugby Australia have decided about the future Wallabies set-up this week, and I still hope that Cheika accepts the reality of his coaching record and resigns. But if he is retained, I sincerely hope that he does not allow Larkham to be the scapegoat for his failings.