Hands up if you believed that Australia’s quarter-final exit at last year’s Rugby World Cup was due to one or more of the following reasons.
The Wallabies lacked quality and depth in key positions compared to the talent and experience contained across the squads of South Africa, England and New Zealand.
Despite an uninterrupted five-year run in the job, coach Michael Cheika never settled on a tactical approach that defined the way his team played.
The defensive system adopted involved too many moving parts and was one the players never seemed completely at ease with.
Scott Fardy was discarded during Cheika’s tenure. Then players like Ned Hanigan and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto were persisted with for long periods at No. 6 before themselves were discarded immediately prior to the World Cup to accommodate the return of David Pocock. As a result questions over the balance of the loose forward trio were never resolved.
Confidence player Bernard Foley was supported for most of Cheika’s tenure at No. 10, then demoted for Christian Leali’ifano just prior to the World Cup. When Leali’ifano’s body wasn’t able to stand up to the rigours of continuous tournament play, Foley was recalled for the crucial pool match against Wales but played like a man who knew he had lost the confidence of his coach.
Cheika adopted a ‘run the ball’ strategy at the World Cup that appeared to be at odds with his side’s set-piece strengths and historical evidence that shows World Cups are invariably more tightly contested that regular internationals.
The Wallabies were a deficient kicking side compared to all other Tier 1 nations, their exit plays consistently putting them at a disadvantage. This was a problem throughout Cheika’s tenure that was partially solved by the return of Nic White from overseas until White was dropped for the crucial matches against Wales and England.
The Wallabies failed to understand and accept World Rugby’s crackdown on high contact, instead fighting against the tide and adopting a victim mentality after Reece Hodge was suspended for his tackle in the pool match against Fiji.
The Wallabies didn’t have a defined, formal ‘leadership group’, and players lacked access to professional sports psychology services, reflective of a coach allowed unfettered autonomy to run things ‘his way’.
Changes to the high-performance reporting structure, including the introduction of a selection panel, came too late to have any real effect for the World Cup.
Misalignment with Super Rugby franchises meant that some players were still entering the Wallabies program insufficiently prepared for the rigours of Test rugby.
Deficiencies in player and coach development, entrenched in Australian rugby over a number of years, is still reflected in Australia’s professional ranks and the struggle to remain competitive with the best professional franchises and Test nations.
There will be other factors readers might care to add to the list. Kurtley Beale is a popular scapegoat. There are some people who believe it was Israel Folau’s absence that ruined the Wallabies’ chances of winning in Japan.
You’d all be wrong. We’d all be wrong. The independent three-man review panel who examined reasons for the Wallabies’ World Cup failure would be wrong.
According to the Australian’s Alan Jones, here’s what cost Australia the World Cup:
“When the Wallabies’ results of 2018 undermined the authority of Cheika, (Raelene) Castle had her revenge by forcing him to answer to Scott Johnson.
“Castle’s anger essentially sabotaged the Wallabies’ Rugby World Cup campaign.”
Lest I be accused of being an apologist for Castle, I, along with many other rugby writers and a huge cohort of fans, called time on Michael Cheika at the end of the 2018 season. Castle had opportunity and justification to end Cheika’s tenure at that point, after limp displays on the Wallabies’ end-of-year tour were coupled with displays of unedifying petulance by the coach.
Castle had a mandate to act and should have done so.
The main reason she didn’t was because the timing fell out of a World Cup cycle, and there were no leading candidates for the position available on the open market. It would have meant going into the World Cup with a disrupted program under a caretaker coach.
There were also considerable transactional costs to consider – a figure in excess of $1 million estimated to terminate Cheika’s contract early.
Further, there was a view that Cheika had been put in place by the previous administration, that the die was already cast and that Castle’s tenure would be defined instead by what and who she put in place for the next cycle to follow the World Cup.
Hindsight shows that appointing an interim coach could not have had any more deleterious effect on the outcome. But in the end, Cheika proved either too difficult or too powerful to sack.
Cheika’s autonomy was set in stone the day he was appointed to the role, long before Castle arrived as CEO. He demanded plenty and took the job on his terms.
It is wholly ironic that today Castle stands condemned by the News Corp posse for “sabotaging” Cheika and for failing to foster a positive relationship with him when in fact she sent Cheika’s 2019 Wallabies to the World Cup better resourced than any side ever before.
Cheika was given everything he was asked for, including training camps in South Africa and New Caledonia. He was allowed to make backs coach Steven Larkham a scapegoat, terminating him without authorisation to do so on the night of Rugby Australia’s Christmas party. And he was allowed to carry on like a surly goose, blaming everyone other than himself and his own players for a run of defeats in 2018 (four wins, nine losses).
Cheika is a proud, intense man who never gave less than 100 per cent as a player and a coach. Success at Leinster and with the Waratahs was directly commensurate with the amount of work he put in.
But let’s knock this attempt to rewrite history on the head right now. The 2019 World Cup campaign was his. He was given a five-year run at it, and if the Wallabies had won the cup, that triumph would have been his triumph.
The other side of that coin is to accept and acknowledge that the Wallabies’ failings were his failings.
The valid criticism that can be made of Castle with regard to Cheika is that she actually let him go to the cup at all and didn’t “sabotage” his campaign by sacking him when she had the chance.
But that’s what happens when the attack dogs are let loose. All logic and reason fly out the window. The only thing that matters is grabbing hold of the hunted and tearing them to shreds.
With that in mind, here’s a wee pop quiz. What was the biggest story in Australian sport late last week?
If you thought it might be the NRL’s very public spat with the Nine Network and their tireless attempts to get their competition up and running again despite the whole country being in lockdown and interstate travel restrictions being in place, you’d be wrong again.
Imagine if it were Raelene Castle who had announced last week that the proposed domestic rugby franchise competition was to get underway on 28 May and it was revealed afterwards by government ministers and the public health officials managing the COVID-19 crisis that not only had no exemptions been granted but no high-level discussions had been held with authorities?
We all know what the media reaction would have been.
Rugby league is a far bigger sport than rugby in Australia, and this proposed attempt to beat the lockdown is a story that is full of intrigue. Will NRL Chairman Peter V’landys be shown to be an arrogant fool or a genius who was ahead of the curve?
Yet it was Castle who dominated the front page of the Australian’s Saturday sports section – a large, unflattering photo sitting alongside a beat-up about a bonus entitlement, atop it Jones equating the crucifixion of Jesus Christ at Easter to Castle’s crucifixion of Australian rugby.
Perhaps we should let the resurrection begin by asking Australia’s professional rugby players – at the time of writing, still haggling with Rugby Australia about the extent of their pay cut – how they see their post-COVID-19 futures playing out.
Is choosing between a Randwick or Warringah jumper, arriving at training after a day at work packing boxes or on the end of a shovel, really what they have in mind?