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Team is king: Deciphering the new prose of Michael Cheika

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Roar Guru
17th June, 2019
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2068 Reads

Twice this year, I’ve heard Michael Cheika say ‘Team is King’ in the context of losing his top try-scorer.

At a Randwick luncheon, he mumbled: “One thing I’ve learnt here is that team is king.” I was not sure if the ‘here’ meant Randwick or Australia or at Rugby Australia or just in life.

A few weeks prior, he trialled the phrase, in a musing fit for a philosopher: “It’s quite complex, but at the end of that spectrum, complex is very close to simple, and the simplicity of it is that inside rugby the team is king and that’s what we need.”

Imagine rude Sharks coach Rob du Preez coming up with that rumination; he who labels journos ‘cockroaches’ and never concedes to any theory.

The Roar knows I find Cheika fascinating. Witness my unreasonably long Cheika-esque essay.

He seems so markedly different from other national rugby coaches. Short on technical mastery, long on emotive zeal, stubborn as Paul Simon’s boxer who heard what he wanted to hear and disregards the rest, and perpetually in outrage-grievance-embattled-lonesome mode; Cheika has survived results no other top level coach could. But lately, he seems pensive.

Chastened. Sad?

Yes, Cheika seems sad as the Wallaby coach. He seems genuinely sad about the events of 2019.

This was more apparent to me when I saw how different he seemed at a Leinster retrospective dinner with Brian O’Driscoll and Shane Horgan. Horgan was accusing Cheika of joining in the last run up the hellish hill and pretending he had done them all.

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Cheika was laughing about how he joined in contact drills, knowing the player would be reluctant to belt him, until ‘Heaslip took me out and then it was a free-for-all.’

Michael Cheika Wallabies

Wallabies coach Michael Cheika (Photo by Jason O’Brien/Getty Images)

And at the end, Cheika explained his rugby team philosophy:

“Success is genuinely built on doing the things you don’t want to do, and doing them as regularly as you can.”

And this took me back to his three word paradigm ‘Team is King.’ It doesn’t seem a very Australian phrase, depending on monarchist sentiment; nor even Maronite, the salty rebels.

Was he speaking to himself? What things does he not want to do? And does he do them, regularly?

What things does he think each player in the Wallaby setup does not want to do? Is that what he wants them to do, constantly? And what does he mean about the team’s mandate?

What are the rhythms and meanings and limits and accommodations of this adage? If the team is king, who and what is sacred, what is the throne, where is mercy, and what is the language of this royal court?

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Many would suspect Cheika would be king, but he is not. He does not want to be king. He perceives himself to be a loyal, rugged, noble, proud servant of the team. Partisan. He fights with fealty. He has an idea of what King Team requires.

It’s not a new idea. It’s an idea from old mists; even nostalgia. Mead halls with blood on the floor and swords broken; boasts and sledges, recapturing the true and almost-true and truer-than-true and poetically true tackles and stuff-ups.

I think I have a sense of what he means. He is speaking of the joy of Horgan mocking him, Heaslip tackling him and laughing about it later, but all committing to do something they don’t want to do, so that tracking back in cover defence for that try-saving, tournament-winning tackle at 79 minutes is de rigueur, par for the course, and expected; and also, subjugating themselves to this passion.

Michael Cheika

These are difficult times for Wallabies coach Michael Cheika. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

A rugby team, when it is a real team, a champion team, has mystic chords of memory, an openness within and a steel laager without, burdens borne for all the boys, love abundant and apolitical, and laughter, such laughter through pain and tears and absurdities as you will never again recapture.

The archetypes, and the opposites of stereotype. The tighthead who cries easily when a certain song plays which reminds him of the girl we are all sick of hearing about.

The giant lock who is obsessed with drop goal competency. The vice-captain scrum half with that ever-evolving facial hair who is just not right, and won’t be okay, ever, if we are honest. The tough-as-iron wing who lost a testicle and we all know it.

The mad-as-a-hatter hooker we protect from the world because we know his true story. The cross-eyed physio we cannot look at without laughing, but would die for in a second.

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The father of the flank, who supplies us with contraband from the docks, and screams the same daft directives from the stands, which never makes sense, but is the anthem of our matches. The moments of pure joy and abject defeat, the nausea and the screams of victory.

We always knew there were men who fancied men, and men who fancied themselves, and guys who didn’t know who or what they fancied; and along the way, you realised life was not simple.

Tactical debates when we are drunk, but no problem at all with Hendrik the centre who does not drink and has never sworn.

Nigel who will not shower. Friendships which do not stop, and decades later span the globe from Wigan to Toronto to Brakpan to the same street it all began.

The inner demons we battle, the outward packages we cultivate as real, and the highest highs and the lows that seem lower than the highs were high. We are not just snapshots. We are not in boxes.

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The foulest-mouthed, foulest-rucking player, who ploughed the most, may end up the best husband and father. The smartest footballer, the worst businessman. The Neanderthal becomes a surgeon.

But also, when Team is King, you can always find your way back. Or you think you can.

There is nothing more powerful in life than the idea of a return to an uncertain home, a changed place and a dear and flawed people we fear we have lost, and even the fear we have lost ourselves.

This year, we are witnessing the flaws of one-size-fits-all Instagram posts when used as tools of persuasion. Anyone who has played in a team, year after year, knows people do get lost. And teams can find you, bring you back, and restore you to dignity.

One of the greatest storytellers who ever lived was fond of telling parables.

In the Parable of the Lost Son, the younger brother takes his inheritance too early, spends it all ‘in wild living,’ has to feed pigs, whose full stomachs he envies, and then ‘came to his senses,’ and resolves to go back to his father, acknowledge he is no longer worthy to called his son.

The father was waiting, full of compassion, and ‘ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him,’ brought him the best robe, put a ring on his finger, killed the fatted calf, and had a feast in his honour.

The older son is filled with resentment: ‘All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

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The answer: ‘This brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’

The depth of the parable that a family loves beyond flaw, is far more interested in being happy than ‘right,’ and can forgive in an instant, even if we never forget. The villain in the tale isn’t the riotous bad boy; it’s the abstemious grouch of an older brother who underestimates a father’s love.

Michael Cheika Australia Rugby Union Wallabies 2017

MC looks to the heavens. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

And isn’t it the best when the player on your team who was dog’s biscuit, written off, no hope, shithouse; ‘comes to his senses,’ and scores the winning try in the corner at the death, and you are headed to the bar for a celebration that says: ‘you were lost, and now you’re found?’

I don’t know if Ed Sheeran ever played rugby. He does wear a Springbok jersey from time to time. But he co-wrote a song that captures the spirit of a team, even if it is only about a group of friends he grew up with, and is trying to find his way back to, and it feels like a rugby song to me.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K0ibBPhiaG0.

If you have played rugby, for longer than a couple of seasons, at a high level or just with all your heart, you have broken something, and often, you have affection for that moment, which makes no sense to anyone who has not played the game, and does not know how a teammate comforts an injured mate, without excessive sympathy, and maybe even affectionate insults.

Sheeran sings:

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“When I was six years old I broke my leg
I was running from my brother and his friends
And tasted the sweet perfume of the mountain grass I rolled down
I was younger then, take me back to when I
Found my heart and broke it here
Made friends and lost them through the years.
And I’ve not seen the roaring fields in so long,
I know I’ve grown
But I can’t wait to go home
I’m on my way”

I was thinking about why this verse so easily translated to a rugby team mentality. It is your brothers and friends who are both the cause and solution of your injuries, and yes, you can still smell the grass, and if you find yourself far from home, you know your coach, your mates, your quietest teammates and the knobs too, they will almost always welcome you home.

After singing about hand-rolled cigarettes and ‘running from the law through the backfields and getting drunk with my friends’ and his first kiss and such, Sheeran recites:

“One friend left to sell clothes
One works down by the coast
One had two kids but lives alone
One’s brother overdosed
One’s already on his second wife
One’s just barely getting by
But these people raised me
And I can’t wait to go home.”

Teammates. And where do they feel most accepted?

The judgements of the office, the church, our birth families even, are not the moral assessments of the rugby team.

Here it is a rockier ethos, a moral calculus that is at once more inclusive, and yet harder. Everyone gets tired, but we must not accept that; everyone is afraid, but we keep bashing head-to-head.

We train to the point of throwing up, we lift when we are hungover, we run when nothing feels right, we study lineouts from any game we see, we are fascinated by the exact methods of the bind, and we do things we don’t want to do, first.

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In the end, the team is king, not because of might or power, but because the team has mercy, the team has meaning, and in the end, it is home.

Michael Cheika has taken the complex and made it simple. Some may say he can only do that because air is blowing through his head, and he cannot master the complex.

This elides the obvious truth, that he is a rather canny operator in life, and probably knows what he has lost, and where home is.