Michael Cheika’s bid to win the 2019 Rugby World Cup ended with a woeful whimper on and off the field. The worst aspect of this ending is that it was entirely predictable.
The 40–16 thrashing England handed out to the Wallabies in the quarter-final was the worst performance by an Australian side at a World Cup.
The Wallabies went into the must-win match with a gameplan requiring them to run the ball at every opportunity. But they were not coached in the skills, variation of plays, athleticism and rugby nous that this approach required.
All the energy in the Cheika preparation centred around indoctrinating the players into a sense of belief that commitment and determination, a will to win, was enough to guarantee victory.
It was as if the Wallabies were sent out to climb Mount Everest with no equipment or plans other than the crude instruction to just climb the bloody thing.
The Wallabies had no counter to England’s skilfully coached side that played at their own pace, understood what tempo was needed at various periods in the match, when to attack, when to kick, what sort of kicks were necessary at a particular time in the match and when to ramp up the pressure at set-pieces.
Stephen Jones, in The Sunday Times, summed up what happened on the field with England this way:
“England played solidly, bravely, cleverly. But they also played with talent, vivacity and pace. They switched from one game to another as the occasion demanded, and field position demanded. In the end it was thumping, crushing.”
In other words, England were coached.
By way of contrast, there was no noticeable coaching involved with the Wallabies preparation.
The Wallabies went into a sudden death quarter-final with back combinations that had never played together before.
The tempo was always the same, slightly frenetic, even when the team’s situation called for slowing things down and consolidating possession and position.
This ‘headless chooks’ approach to the way the Wallabies operated made it easy for England to defend, for it invariably resulted in one-off barging run plays.
Cheika was exposed in comparison to Eddie Jones as a motivator who did not have a clue about actual coaching or selection.
What is more disturbing is he has been protected for some years by Rugby Australia.
They didn’t stymie Cheika’s disgraceful behaviour towards referees, for instance.
At Twickenham, in 2017, when the Wallabies were thrashed 30–16 by England, Cheika was caught appearing to mouth the words “fucking cheats” when Michael Hooper was denied a try by the TMO, and subsequently warned to “moderate his conduct and language” following a World Rugby referral.
And two years later, Cheika predictably lashed out at the referees following the Wallabies’ first game of the World Cup against Fiji.
“The stuff on the ground, I’m not quite sure what’s going on but the team of three were talking about David Pocock from the first minute of the game. I’m not sure why,” he said.
“I heard his name mentioned between them on the commentary at least a half a dozen times, in their own chat, when he hadn’t even been involved in a ruck.
“I’m not sure what the focus is upon him, he’s only played one game and he’s been out all year. There was a severe focus on him, his name was being called all the time.”
By allowing Cheika to unfairly trash the referees, Rugby Australia condoned behaviour that is outlawed in its Code of Conduct. Yet he was never effectively disciplined.
And then there is Cheika’s clueless belief that he is not interested in how the opposition is going to play.
When asked last week what his thoughts were about the England team, his reply was a model of stupidity:
“Don’t really have one mate. Lots of respect but I’m not a big analyser of the opposition. I’m always telling my coaches not to watch the opposition so much. They watch too much footage of the opposition.”
Cheika made a lot of foolish statements in his career as coach of the Wallabies. This one must rank as one of the most absurd.
Rod Macqueen, the coach the 1999 Rugby World Cup-winning Wallabies, liked to quote Sun Tzu’s aphorism “know your enemy” as the cornerstone of successful coaching.
But what would Macqueen know? He only coached the Wallabies to a 79.1 per cent winning Test record. Cheika’s was 50 per cent.
And here is a question. Why wasn’t Macqueen used by Rugby Australia in the same sort mentoring role played by Wayne Smith for many years with the All Blacks?
This mentoring should have been put in place early this year given that 2018, when they won four of 13 Tests, was the Wallabies’ worst since 1958.
The point here is that if a team gets into a habit of losing, it will invariably kick in during a World Cup, unless special action is taken.
In 2016, the brilliant New Zealand journalist Tom Scott produced a cartoon showing Steve Hansen holding a baby Cheika wearing a soiled and leaking nappy and asking: “Could someone from Australian rugby change him?”
That never happened. And the result was a trashing of the Wallabies as a team and a brand that has disgusted rusted-on supporters and rugby followers around the world.
Given this history, it was no surprise that Cheika, at the press conference following the quarter-final disaster, remained in a combative mode.
A journalist asked if he was considering his role as Australian coach following the loss. This was a perfectly reasonable question, given that Cheika himself had said he would quit if he didn’t win the World Cup this year.
The reply was typically self-indulgent:
“If you find it inside you to find a little bit of compassion, just ask some more relevant question because I tell you, for me, I came here with only one thought in mind, winning the World Cup, and that thought just disappeared now.”
The fact is that the CEO of Rugby Australia, Raelene Castle, told journalists before the tournament that anything short of a final berth would be considered a failure for the Wallabies.
Instead, they were out of the World Cup in a quarter-final, and with a record defeat.
Why wouldn’t Cheika admit that he was finished as coach of the Wallabies?
When he talked about compassion, my mind went back to his treatment of Israel Folau.
Cheika showed no compassion for him when he said, at the beginning of the controversy, that he wouldn’t select him for the Wallabies.
This was a decisive moment in the sacking of Folau.
This always seemed to me to be a strange position for a coach to take, that he dismissed his best attacking player from the squad for non-rugby reasons.
And while we are on this matter, I note that the rugby media, in their enthusiasm to put the boot into Folau, wrote articles suggesting that dropping Folau actually improved the World Cup prospects of the Wallabies.
This was politically correct nonsense posing as rugby commentary.
The fact of the matter is that in his last Test against England, Folau scored two of the three tries as the Wallabies went down 37-18 at Twickenham.
The second try was scored on full-time and was Folau’s last touch in Test rugby.
How much better would the Wallabies have fared if he had been playing against England on Saturday?
At Oita Stadium, the Wallabies:
On these statistics, a well-coached Wallabies side would have won by at least 40-16, the result actually that England achieved, despite the lack of ball and field position.
When the Wallabies clawed back the scoreline to 17-16 and even at 24-16, having someone like Folau, given all the possession the Wallabies had, could have been a game-changer.
It was clear in this game that the Wallabies game plan was too one-dimensional to trouble a well-coached opposition defence.
The failure of Michael Cheika as Wallabies coach at the 2019 World Cup is a story of the failure of the leaders in Australian rugby.
The former’s resignation on Sunday night was inevitable.
But what about the latter group? What about Rugby Australia? They protected Cheika when it was obvious the Wallabies’ reputation and winning record were being tarnished, destroyed even.
Cheika’s failure was also theirs. And so too should Rugby AU’s leaders match his depature, for running Australian rugby into a dark, losing place.