Following their narrow 20-19 World Cup quarter-final win against France, Wales coach Warren Gatland admitted to spending time during the second half framing comments for what he believed was going to be a losing post-match interview.
It wasn’t that he had lost faith in his players, but more reflected one of those days at the office when you have a feeling that this isn’t going to be your day.
Gatland’s revelation revealed how he was in touch with what was happening around him – an unfavoured opponent who had played some inspired rugby to open up a lead, and his own side hit by injury to key personnel before and during the match, struggling to chase it down.
It also showed how even the best prepared and organised coaches can lose control of outcomes once the players take the field.
As it happened, France – because they are France – imploded, the match officials tipped a 50-50 call Wales’ way, and Gatland and Wales got to stay alive for at least another week.
If body language is any measure, the Wallabies’ Michael Cheika has never appealed as someone in control of what happens once a match begins. And as was painfully obvious, as the 24-point loss to England played out, too often without the strategic and organisational skills to control outcomes before the match as well.
As if to tease long-suffering fans, for a fleeting moment in Oita we had a contest. After falling behind 17-6, then 17-9, in the 43rd minute Reece Hodge swept a delightful pass wide to the left, where Jordan Petaia sent Marika Koroibete on a course to embarrass Eliot Daly, and edge the Wallabies to within a point of England, at 16-17.
But rather like Cheika’s five-year tenure as Wallabies coach, it proved to be nothing more than a false dawn.
Not three minutes later, Tolu Latu and Christian Lealiifano lost contact in the defensive line, Owen Farrell hit Kyle Sinckler with the money ball, and the Wallabies World Cup was done – save for 35 more minutes of headless agony.
This quarter-final was a microcosm of the Wallabies over this World Cup cycle. Periods of crisp phase play stretching the English defence without ever threatening to break it. Tactical naivety blended with skills deficiencies – none more overt than a first-half chip kick by Kurtley Beale that beggared belief.
It’s not a crime to try to put on some skill to catch the opposition napping, and the kick-pass has proved to be a popular and successful option at this tournament. But not right there and then, without defenders rushing up to create space in behind, and not with such abject execution.
Curiously, for a side supposedly playing with desperation, the Wallabies were too often indirect. David Pocock popped a meek intercept pass when he could have tucked the ball under his wing and driven ahead, and too many forward runners were caught out tracking too wide when coming around the corner – easy pickings for a talented English loose forward unit.
The Wallabies lineout too, was surprisingly passive, Courtney Lawes twice given a free jump without a marker in the first half.
Will Genia’s final act as a Wallaby was a limp knock-on at the base of a ruck. It was a cruel sign-off for a distinguished 110-Test Wallaby who, after Nic White’s commanding performance in the Wallabies’ best match under Cheika, should not have been starting.
In Perth, White bouncing out of the base with the ball committed defenders and put them in two minds. Here, Genia picking up the ball and stepping out committed nobody – he never deceived the defence into believing he was a running option – the defenders simply allowed an extra second or two to advance and pick out the Wallabies’ receivers.
That Cheika, through constant tinkering with selection and tactical naivety, wasn’t able to launch forward from Perth, but in fact regressed, was the ultimate cruelty for the many thousands of Wallabies fans who made their way to Japan.
Whether one takes perverse pleasure in or cringes at the flurry of excuses, attempts to re-write history, finger pointing and blame shifting that now washes over Australian rugby, none of that really matters. Rugby Australia undertaking not to appoint future coaches on long-term contracts, allowing them unfettered power and control is a given. Beyond that, any kind of detailed post-mortem would be moot.
Cheika’s ascent to the position of head coach was transparent, in the way that his heart was always on his sleeve throughout his reign, and in the painful moments immediately after the loss in Oita.
He would have been forced out this time last year, if only Rugby Australia had more money, had been further advanced with a succession plan, and more top line coaches weren’t already tied up until after the World Cup.
Two additional selectors were added, but too late for them to make a difference or, more tellingly, to want to make a difference. Given the established culture around Cheika’s team, his reluctance to work collegially, and the short time frame until the World Cup and the end of Cheika’s contract, what would have been the point?
Right to the end Cheika remained his own man – just as he would have taken sole credit for success, this failure was all his.
Scott Johnson will start anew, with his own fresh canvas. A new coach will be announced, almost certain to be Dave Rennie, the Bledisloe Cup will be targeted as an achievable and necessary goal, and fans will once again be drawn into a new cycle of hope and cautious optimism.
Interviewed pitch-side, Cheika’s disappointment was palpable. It was impossible not to feel sadness for him, the players, and for the travelling supporters.
But the real sadness perhaps lies less with this result, and the lost opportunity of the last four years, but with Cheika still believing that he was much closer to success than what he ever actually was.
Another coach at the end of his career, Joe Schmidt, will be remembered much more kindly, despite Ireland’s elimination, 46-14, at the hands of a switched-on New Zealand.
At his post-match press conference, he was afforded a high level of respect for his achievement in dragging Ireland up to the top echelon of rugby nations, and while his two World Cup quarter-final exits will rankle him forever, Six Nations success and two victories against New Zealand will be his true legacy.
Schmidt provides an interesting contrast to Cheika – very similar in terms of their undying passion for rugby and for the coaching role, but far superior in his ability to get people at all levels working for and with him, and better able to construct a straightforward tactical template, suitable for the types of players at his disposal.
Steve Hansen is another coach coming to the end of his career, although not having a bar of discussing that until this World Cup campaign is over. One concession is to take every opportunity to spruik the claims of his assistant Ian Foster, to take over as head coach next year.
If the All Blacks continue to play as they did against Ireland – with such impressive intensity and clarity – and they go on to win this tournament, then it will surely be very difficult to deny Foster his day in the sun.
That said, both Hansen and Foster know full well that there are three other coaches determined to have a say on that outcome over the next fortnight.
Their focus will be on delivering more of the same – Joe Moody and Kieran Read leading the midfield carry, Brodie Retallick controlling the point of attack, and every player from 1 to 23 assertive and accurate on the ruck clean out.
Over Hansen’s tenure we have seen the All Blacks happy to concede possession, pressure the opposition into error and feed off those mistakes. This is a different tactical approach – halfback Aaron Smith did not kick the ball until the second quarter of this match – with the All Blacks seizing the initiative and, as Schmidt so colourfully put it afterwards, “not giving us room to breathe.”
Underfoot conditions in Tokyo are conducive to fast ball movement and the All Blacks, more than any other side, have recognised this and have committed to using this to their advantage.
The match featured one curious moment, with replacement flanker Matt Todd entering the history books as the first player to give away a penalty try, and receive a yellow card, for laying down and blocking the goalpost padding with his body.
It was a confounding event, players and audience not really sure what referee Nigel Owens was up to, particularly when he insisted that Todd was offside, despite replays showing that Todd had retreated to an onside position behind his goal-line.
But even if he got the method wrong, Owens in fact got the decision right; a check of the law book afterwards revealing law 13.3.a which states:
“A player on the ground without the ball is out of the game and must allow opponents who are not on the ground to play or gain possession of the ball”
By falling down and blocking the goalpost, thus preventing an opponent playing the ball against the post for a try, Todd was clearly in contravention of this law, and will now, like the rest of us, move on somewhat wiser.
France’s Jacques Brunel is another coach who will leave his post with plenty to reflect upon, not the least how it might be possible for any coach to withstand such stupidity as demonstrated by his lock Sebastien Vahaamahina.
Despite many people in the game pushing for a red carded player to be allowed to be replaced after a period of time, Vahaamahina’s dismissal was a perfect example of why this should never happen.
His team was ahead by nine points, hot on attack, in possession, and with the destiny of the game in their hands.
Something so stupid – throwing an elbow into an opponent’s jaw – deserves the ultimate sanction for player and team. Players must always know that irresponsible acts carry the highest consequences, and that severe deterrent helps ensure both the safety of players and the integrity of the game.
Whatever the outcome of the final semi-final between Japan and South Africa, Japan coach Jamie Joseph was already a bona-fide World Cup hero. He will enjoy some time in the sun, but also face the challenge of ensuring that Japan does not slip from this level – a task that will be made more difficult when the Sunwolves exit Super Rugby after next season.
Win or lose South Africa’s Rassie Erasmus always has a smile on his face. If there was any disappointment at his side being unable to score more than three tries against Japan, despite dominating the set piece and maul so conclusively, this would have been tempered by his side’s superb defensive effort.
The Japanese threw everything at the Boks, at full speed and with remarkable surety of handling. Nevertheless, the South African big men bossed the midfield, and on the rare occasion when a half chance did present itself, their little men scrambled with impressive speed to shut the threat down.
Since their opening weekend loss, the draw has fallen nicely for them and they remain a winning threat.
The last of the four coaches left standing is Cheika’s nemesis, Eddie Jones. Away from the worst of the UK press, and in familiar territory for him in Japan, Jones has remained relaxed throughout, convinced that his impeccable preparation will carry his side right through.
His side is well balanced, and it is evident that England and New Zealand are the two best prepared sides here.
It is not being disrespectful to Wales or South Africa to say that the New Zealand versus England semi-final feels like it should be the final – certainly whoever wins it will carry favouritism into the final week.
Hansen, Jones, Gatland and Erasmus. One winner and three other men who will still walk away from this tournament with their heads held high.
If we’re being completely honest, Cheika’s name never ever belonged in that company.