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Cheika's legacy: Consistent inconsistency and puzzling selection to the very end

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20th October, 2019
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It was painfully obvious as the fulltime gong went in Oita on Saturday night, and Michael Cheika knew it himself when he bit at the post-match question about his coaching future.

“If you find inside you, to find a little bit of compassion, for people who are hurting, just ask the more relevant questions,” Cheika responded to the not unreasonable question, given he’d stated back in February 2018 that he would walk if the Wallabies didn’t make another Rugby World Cup final.

“I will tell you for me, I came here with only one thought in my mind and that was winning. That door has just disappeared now, not 15-20 minutes ago.

“I know that’s what the papers demand but perhaps whatever your news outlet is or whatever, think about people’s feelings for a minute. Just chill.”

Later, when asked again if he would follow through on his word to walk away, Cheika gave a much more reasoned, “When the time comes, I will tell them. They don’t need to know today. It’s not going to kill them. Sweet?”

By Sunday afternoon, the reality of the situation gave way to the inevitable.

“I got asked the question in the press conference, you would’ve been there and listening, about what’s going to happen going forward and at the time I wasn’t keen to answer but I always knew the answer in my head, I just wanted to speak to my wife and tell a few people up there about it,” he told Australian reporters.

“I put my chips in earlier in the year I told people no win, no play.

“So, I’m the type of man who always going to back what he says and I knew from the final whistle, but I just wanted to give it that little bit time to settle down, talk to my people and then make it clear.”

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Another reasonable response, one clearly re-measured after making the calls he needed to make and having the conversations he needed to have.

And even with his position clear going into the tournament, once the campaign was over, Cheika was still entitled a little time to speak with friends and family, and to the Wallabies themselves, before making his intentions clear.

Though his head was being called for immediately, it’s certainly true that Australia didn’t need to know an hour after full time.

(Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images,)

There has never been any question about Cheika’s passion for the job. There’s never been any doubt around his intent to make the Wallabies the best team it could be.

And though he remained a man of his February 2018 word, he also indicated he would have liked to have remain in the role.

“I had no regrets about making the call, but yes, I would love to stay on,” he said.

“I’m really attached to the team and it’s an honour doing this role, coach of Australia. It’s not given to a lot of people and I take it with a lot of pride and a lot of honour,” he said on Sunday, before reiterating “I’ve got to stand by what I said.”

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Ultimately, history will show that intent fell short.

And the reality is he fell short of fulfilling his intention because of his approach; his undoubtedly passionate, but fundamentally flawed approach to coaching at the international level.

“We weren’t able to deliver consistency over a lot of the time,” Cheika said in that same stand-up on Sunday. I’d suggest the selections of he and his fellow panellists had a lot to do with that.

I highlighted last week that there had been 77 changes made to the Wallabies side just since arriving in Japan, but the total number across 2019 is every bit as staggering.

The Wallabies’ quarter-final defeat to England was their tenth Test of the year, and from the first international of the season against South Africa in Johannesburg, the selectors made an extraordinary 119 positional and personnel changes across the next nine Tests. That’s more than 13 changes per match.

Though Australia used the same eight forwards in three of the five Rugby World Cup matches, and six of those eight in the match against Georgia, a different halves pairing was used in every game, plus the warm-up Test against Samoa as well.

With half a dozen different pairings in as many Tests, the 9 and 10 was always at sixes and sevens.

That’s why you weren’t able to deliver consistency, coach. When every other major QF nation knew their first XV well in advance of the tournament, the Wallabies remained in a state of flux until the very end.

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Fans of the wonderful political comedy Veep will be well aware of the slogan “continuity with change”, and that’s about the only thing consistent about the Wallabies of 2019.

And again, I’ll mention the 2015 campaign, where for their last five games into the final, Cheika made just four injury-forced changes to his starting side.

Cheika’s parting comments, that he had “no relationship” with CEO Raelene Castle, and not much more than that with chairman Cameron Clyne, ensures that we haven’t heard the last of all this by a long way.

But his mutterings about the selection panel changes enforced upon him were as illuminating as his already alarming and well-known admission that he doesn’t analyse opposition teams.

“Scott’s a lovely bloke and I get on fine with him but I’m not really into that type of thing, I like to take that responsibility,” he said of Scott Johnson’s over-arching director of rugby position, and part of the selection panel along with Michael O’Connor.

“I found also that it changed my normal routine around things. Not that my way’s definitely the right way, I’m definitely not saying that, but that’s just the way I like to operate.

“I’ve always prided myself on not compromising my own values and what I want to do, so I found that a little bit difficult at times.”

This is confirmation of what was widely assumed. Cheika was no longer master of the Wallabies domain, and it’s clear he didn’t enjoy it. But after a disappointing 2018 season, Cheika being in total control was a long way past being tenable.

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Michael Cheika

(Dan Mullan/Getty Images,)

Somehow, when it was widely expected that the selection panel might bring with it some selection table stability, it’s been anything but.

The same goes for the gameplan, which Cheika said would surprise teams because it was unpredictable, but it proved so utterly predictable that Eddie Jones specifically tweaked his team selection for the quarter-final to specifically target Australia’s ‘plan A or bust’ approach.

Stuart Barnes nailed the truth of the matter in the Fox Sports post-match, when he said that playing unpredictable rugby isn’t just running the ball all the time, from everywhere on the field. You have to mix up your running, your passing, and your tactical kicking.

The Wallabies barely mixed up their running, never mind the other two.

“England, as dull as they were tonight, still played smarter than Australia tonight,” Barnes concluded.

But, in proving just how immovable Cheika was on compromising his values and changing what he wanted to do as coach, one of his most telling comments on Saturday night will go down as his Wallabies-coaching legacy.

“I’d rather win our way, than no way at all,” he said.

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The problem being that the rest of the rugby world evolved from the Australian method in 2015.

And in 2019, ‘winning our way’ just isn’t a way to win anymore.