• Is It All Michael Cheika’s Fault?

    As the Bledisloe Cup slipped from his grasp yet again on Saturday, despite a much-improved Wallaby performance, Michael Cheika’s critics will have a field day.  But Cheika is by no means the first Wallaby coach to have trouble trying to beat the All Blacks on a regular basis.  The list of those of his predecessors who failed to overcome similar problems is a long one.

    It includes Eddie Jones, now reincarnated as England’s saviour, and our own Robbie Deans who – despite his success in producing a silk purse with Canterbury and the Crusaders – found he couldn’t make much from a Wallaby sow’s ear.

    The list includes other good coaches – Greg Smith, John Connolly and Ewen McKenzie among them.  So, should we (and the Aussies as well) moderate our criticism of Cheika, on the basis that he may be no better, but is certainly no worse than many of those who went before him?

    We should first salute Cheika’s earlier successes with the Waratahs and Leinster, and his achievement in taking the Wallabies to the 2015 World Cup Final.  But we are surely entitled as well to register that his performance as coach of the current Wallabies is disappointing, not just as shown by the statistics, but in the manner of it as well.

    His selections have at times been hard to fathom, and – despite his reputation as a good motivator – he has sometimes seemed unable to get the best from his players.  We have had little chance to judge his ability as a tactician, since his teams have often been so much behind the eight ball as to offer little clue as to what he, and they, were trying to do.

    His personality, too, has sometimes seemed unattractively ill-suited to overcoming the odds.  He seems more inclined to complain about ill-fortune (and referees) rather than overcoming it, and – as a consequence – he is less useful to his team than he could or should be.

    But none of this fully explains the plight in which Australian rugby now finds itself – and Michael Cheika’s deficiencies or otherwise can only be a small part of the story.

    Rugby, and the Wallabies, are having a hard time, especially by comparison with their trans-Tasman rivals, for more deep-seated reasons.  Rugby in Australia faces powerful competition from other codes, and struggles – given the Aussie demand that their sportspeople should be winners – if the results are less than stellar.

    And, unlike in New Zealand, rugby has not played a major part in shaping the national consciousness and identity, and has not served the vital and valuable purpose, as it has here, of bringing the races together.  Nor has it, as it has for New Zealand, brought to international notice some of the strengths and virtues of the society that their rugby represents.

    Whereas the All Blacks are instantly recognisable as manifestations and exemplars of what New Zealand is about, the Wallabies have a much less prominent image.  There is something of the virtuous circle about New Zealand rugby; success produces prestige and prestige breeds success – and that is why New Zealand rugby enjoys the great advantage that many of our best athletes play rugby and that many of our best coaches and thinkers devote their talents to the game.

    The difference is, in other words, that rugby occupies a place in New Zealand’s national life and culture that is not even remotely approached in Australia.   And because Aussies are accustomed to such a high level of international sporting achievement across the board, their only occasionally high-performing national rugby team simply does not earn from them the respect and acclaim, either domestically or internationally, that the All Blacks have been able to treat as their birthright for more than a century – and that our Women’s World Cup holders are also now building for themselves.

    While replacing the coach has not been overly successful in curing the lack of Australian rugby success, this should not mean that they should accept a coaching record from Michael Cheika that is spotty at best.  If all the other problems (and there are many) are to be addressed, not least by appointing a more competent administration, there is then no reason why Michael Cheika, too, should not come under critical scrutiny.

    Bryan Gould

    26 August 2017