Michael Cheika wonders if the NSW Waratahs are in denial after a record-breaking 59-23 Super Rugby loss to the Highlanders left his former franchise staring down the barrel of a historic and humiliating winless season.
The Waratahs leaked more than 40 points for the seventh time this year to gift the Highlanders victory in Dunedin on Saturday night.
The Highlanders piled on nine tries to two at Forsyth Barr Stadium, extending the Waratahs’ unprecedented losing streak to 12 matches while racking up their most points ever in a match against NSW.
Sitting last, the Waratahs have now conceded 225 points at an average of more than 56 a game in their four Trans-Tasman encounters.
Waratahs vice-captain Alex Newsome blamed breakdown issues and an inability to exit their own half after scoring points for their latest loss, leaving former Wallabies coach Cheika bewildered.
“I don’t know if they’re in denial here. I don’t if I’m watching a different game of footy but they’re not talking about defence at all,” Cheika, the Waratahs’ only Super Rugby-winning coach, said from the Nine commentary booth.
“It’s just about simply making tackles. I think that comes down to personal ownership of the defence.”
Cheika said not only did the Waratahs make poor defensive reads and rush out of the line, they lacked desperation and he questioned the players’ commitment.
“It probably goes back to mindset as well,” he said.
“I understand they’ve had so many changes as well and there’s a lot of players out (but) those things are part of who you are as a team.
“That’s probably something they’re going to have to work on – about ‘who are we, we’ve got to go out and make our tackles’ and then afterwards own it and move on to the next thing.”
If they can’t beat the Chiefs next Saturday night in Sydney, the Waratahs will complete a season without a win for the first time in 35 years of professional rugby.
Newsome spoke pre-game of the emotional toll the Waratahs’ dismal campaign had taken on the players and Saturday night’s soul-destroying display won’t have helped.
Somewhat miraculously, given their “touch rugby” defence – as New Zealand commentators put it – the Waratahs actually led at the half-hour mark.
But schoolboy errors cost them dearly as the Highlanders converted a 33-23 halftime lead into a commanding bonus-point triumph with four unanswered five-pointers after the break.
“It’s the story of our season, really,” Newsome said.
Cheika said he felt for Waratahs co-coaches Chris Whitaker and Jason Gilmore and for young props Andrew Tuala and Darcy Breen, who held their own at scrum time only to be let down by teammates.
“Coach Whitaker must be going mad up there, honestly,” Cheika said.
“Like, some of the stuff they do is awesome and some of the stuff they do you want to close your eyes.”