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Cheika stumbles in first test of new Wallabies paradigm

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Expert
18th April, 2019
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The Israel Folau ‘Hell Awaits’ saga has revealed a lot about many people, including the likelihood that Michael Cheika has already forgotten who now selects the Wallabies team and some inconsistency over who he thinks deserves another chance.

On top of this, Cheika might feel a bit squeamish after David Pocock was ruled out for a fifth straight Super Rugby game due to the calf injury he first picked up at a Wallabies camp in January.

It sounds like the workload at the get-together was heavy, especially at that time of the year, with Nick Phipps also injuring his calf.

It doesn’t sound like the smartest way to structure a preseason camp that was supposed to focus on World Cup planning, but perhaps the Wallabies coach doesn’t deserve to be condemned for this.

However, Cheika should be held to account over how he handled being questioned on Monday about Folau’s future with the Wallabies.

Folau is appealing Rugby Australia’s decision to issue him with a breach notice for his social media posts condemning homosexuals, among others, to hell if they do not repent.

Although the hearing is yet to be held and is likely to be a protracted and complex legal battle, Cheika was nonetheless forthright in his stance when asked if he would ever pick him again for the Wallabies.

“I think as it stands right now, considering what I just said, you wouldn’t be able to,” Cheika said at the start of the week.

To take this premature public position before Folau’s case is heard muddies the waters.

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What happens if Folau is successful in his challenge and is reinstated for the Waratahs and Wallabies? It would become very awkward.

But apart from this, Cheika seemed to forget the new composition of the Wallabies selection panel.

Scott Johnson was appointed director of rugby last December as part of a restructure aimed at boosting the struggling national team heading into this year’s World Cup.

Scott Johnson.

Director or rugby Scott Johnson (Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images)

Johnson is also part of a new three-person Wallabies selection panel with Cheika and former Wallabies back Michael O’Connor.

So if he’s going to speak publicly about Wallabies selections – especially about ones as significant as Folau’s – he should consult Johnson and O’Connor first.

Perhaps he has already done so in regards to Folau, but it’s important that he makes this known.

It’s particularly important in the early days of this structure, both for engendering the trust of the other selectors and also in terms of clarity for Wallabies fans.

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Former Australian skipper Nick Farr-Jones was one that believes Cheika erred in publicly stating he won’t pick Folau again. It was ill-advised by Cheika before the code of conduct hearing date was even set.

One could argue that Cheika provides one view amongst three when it comes to selection, and he could be outvoted by Johnson and O’Connor.

But as coach Cheika’s early judgement would mean Folau’s presence in a Wallabies team would be uncomfortable at best and untenable at worst.

The other element to the Folau case that should be brought to attention is the variability in Cheika’s attitude towards tolerance and forgiveness for players who get into strife.

There should be a decent level of consistency in justice when it comes to those who are granted second and third chances.

Take the case of Karmichael Hunt.

Hunt pleaded guilty to cocaine possession in 2015 and copped a $30,000 fine and six-game suspension.

He found himself in trouble again late in 2017 when he was arrested on drugs charges. Hunt had cocaine charges dropped but pleaded guilty to possessing Xanax. That resulted in a fine of $10,000 and a four-game ban by Rugby Australia.

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Hunt left the Queensland Reds and got a career lifeline with the Waratahs this season.

Karmichael Hunt in a huddle with the Wallabies

Karmichael Hunt has received second and third chances after drug suspensions. (AP Photo/Tertius Pickard)

Before his second court appearance last year, Hunt received some significant backing from Cheika.

“I think he’d be personally down and let himself down in that situation,” Cheika said.

“But he’s not an evil person, that’s for sure. He’s a good bloke, he made a mistake in the past. I think now we’ll talk with the Reds, see where we’re at going forward and work together with Karmichael to see where we’re going to go from here.”

So Folau posted his controversial ‘gays to hell’ comments for the first time last year. He was warned not to repeat it but couldn’t resist a few weeks ago.

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People can make their own minds up whether drug offences, which are dealt with by the courts of the land, or posting insensitive social media comments, which are judged by public perceptions and sensitivities, are more serious.

If Hunt got a third chance, then surely Folau deserves to be forgiven despite him being a higher-profile player.

Is Folau an evil person? No.

Should he be punished by Rugby Australia? Yes.

But not by sacking him. A fine and ban would suffice.

For now Cheika could do worse than retract his stance on not picking Folau for the Wallabies again, because as ludicrous as it might seem to him, sacking the fullback might not be as simple as he and RA hoped.

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