So then, here we are… the Rugby World Cup knockout stage is upon us.
Michael Cheika has gone rogue over World Rugby’s three-match ban of Reece Hodge for a high tackle on Fiji’s No.7 and best player, Peceli Yato.
And in going rogue, Cheika has breached Rugby Australia’s code of conduct for coaches at all levels of the game, especially at the international level.
First, Cheika criticised Fiji’s management for taking the Hodge matter to the World Cup appeal tribunal. What Fiji did was, according to Cheika, “against the spirit of the game”.
The fact is that Cheika made a false accusation against Fiji’s management, especially the team’s coach, John McKee.
During the match between the Wallabies and Fiji, the Fijians asked for the tackle to be reviewed. They had every right to do this. Their inspirational captain was lying prone on the ground after a dodgy tackle by a Wallabies defender.
The match officials did not find anything involving foul play in the replays they were given.
It was only after the game that a “more incriminating camera angle” – according to Wayne Smith in The Australian – was discovered and “it was on the basis of that footage that Hodge was cited and suspended”.
So it was World Rugby officials who initiated the judicial panel’s hearing into the Hodge tackle.
Rugby Australia’s code of conduct, as it applies to coaches, in section 2.7 states: “Do not abuse, threaten or intimidate, use crude language or gestures, or show unnecessary obvious dissension, displeasure or disapproval towards… a selector, coach, manager or other team official.’
It is clear that Cheika violated section 2.7 of the code of conduct by accusing the Fijian team’s management of acting against the spirit of the game for something they did not actually do.
There is more.
Georgina Robinson in noted that “a fired-up Cheika took aim at the judicial panel’s decision to single out Hodge for criticism in its written judgment”.
She quoted this comment by Cheika as justifying her analysis that the Wallabies coach had the judicial panel in his sights: “I think there is a part of it – that I have spoken to the boys about it – there is a bit of us versus everyone else, you know and we know that. So we are not going to let it derail us… we are not going to let them get to us”.
Cheika’s response to the judicial panel’s critique that Reece Hodge was “not across” the high-tackle decision-making framework and that this was of “some general concern” was totally combative. “Every game is a grand final and me personally, I’m not going to be put of course from that by anyone not the man chairing the hearing of what anyone else says,” Cheika said.
With this statement, Cheika is accusing the judicial panel chair Nigel Hampton QC of deliberating trying to derail the Wallabies from their course of performing well in the World Cup.
Cheika then doubled down on this accusation of bias: “Whatever World Rugby are doing, I can tell you right now, if there is one bloke World Rugby is not listening to, it’s me, OK”.
It should be noted that the judicial panel other members were Frank Hadden, a former head coach of Scotland, and the Argentinian Test referee Jose Luis Rolandi.
The written judgment about the legality of Reece Hodge’s tackle from the panel makes this statement: “The Player conceded that he had no effective knowledge of WR’s ‘Decision making framework for high tackles’; had not been trained on it; was not across it because the tackles he makes are predominantly in the waist to knees area… To the Panel, this was of some general concern.’
Cheika’s statements have essentially accused the judicial panel of making up this criticism of Hodge and his preparation for the World Cup tournament.
Rugby cannot allow a rogue coach like Cheika to make these sort of accusations with impunity.
This brings us to 2.9 of the code of conduct: “Do not make any public comment that is critical of the performance of a match official, player, team official coach or employee/officer/volunteer of any club or a Union: or on any matter that is, or likely to be, the subject of an investigation or disciplinary process: or otherwise make any public comment that would be detrimental to the best interests, image and welfare of the Game, a team, a club, a competition or Union”.
Cheika, as with 2.7 of the code of conduct, has clearly violated 2.9 as well.
We need to read Cheika’s unprecedented attack in the light of Rugby Australia’s support of its code of conduct.
“This code,” writes Raelene Castle, the CEO of Rugby Australia, “also seeks to deter conduct that could damage the game of Rugby by impairing public confidence in the honest and orderly conduct of matches and competitions or the integrity and good character of the Participants.”
For years now Cheika has brought the Wallabies and Australian rugby into disrepute with his nasty attacks on referees and other coaches.
He has frequently attacked the integrity and character of referees. He, for instance, performs like a circus clown in the coach’s box throwing his hands, scowling and shouting when decisions go against his team.
No other coach in world rugby, not even volatile characters like Eddie Jones, dissent so regularly and openly against referees and their assistants as Cheika does.
Now he has aimed his fire at the judicial panel of World Rugby.
The damage this reckless conduct is doing to the image of the Wallabies is obvious.
It is unacceptable, or should be unacceptable, for a coach to attack the integrity of a judicial panel investigating the play of one of his players.
The judicial panel must be treated with respect by players, officials and coaches, otherwise there will be mayhem on and off the field.
The shame of all of this is that Hodge’s representative at his hearing, Brisbane silk Mark Martin QC, made a strong case for his client.
And because of Cheika’s ranting, this case is not getting the hearing in the rugby world it deserves to have.
Peceli Yato, Martin argued, “made a concerted effort to run into the Player (Hodge) with as much force as he could, lowering his body height”.
Wayne Smith in The Australian has run a photo of Yato raising his right arm and leading with his shoulder into the collision with Reece Hodge.
This photo vindicates the argument made by Mark Martin QC.
Smith notes that all high tackles are not the same and that “the unspoken element to this whole debate is how Yato contributed to his own injury”.
This is an extremely important point. It is a point that is invariably overlooked in cases like this.
Most head injuries in tackles – about 75 per cent of them, and 75 per cent of these injuries – involve damage done to the tackler. That is right: the tackler, not the tackled player, is the player who is injured most.
The photo of Yato bracing himself for the tackle by presenting a hard shoulder and high arm to Hodge shows why.
If a runner presents the high arm and hard shoulder to a runner, it is inevitable that the tackler will instinctively turn his own shoulder and arm to avoid a massive contact to his chest.
The photo presented by Wayne Smith shows Hodge doing just this.
It seems certain that sooner or later World Rugby has to come to terms with the fact that runners cause more head injuries than tacklers.
It is foul play if a tackler, like Hodge, makes a reckless high tackle that causes damage to the head of a runner.
The judicial panel was right under the present high-tackle sanction framework to come to the decision they did.
But the actions of runners, either with elbows, shoulders, or knees aimed at the head of a tackler, must now be part of the process.
This should have been Cheika’s discussion point after the ban was imposed on Hodge.
If the Wallabies coach had done that, he would have made a valuable contribution to what is going to be a matter of high concern for World Rugby during this tournament and for some time to come.
Instead Cheika went rogue. He made the whole Hodge matter all about himself, as he always does.
And, in doing this, he has brought the Wallabies and Australian rugby into disrepute.
When is Raelene Castle going to match her actions with her words and stop Cheika from his continual breaching of Rugby Australia’s code of conduct for coaches?