As the first whistle of the 2019 Rugby World Cup approaches and the Wallabies search for confidence post a truly dreadful 2018, the relationship that must now bind rapidly is that of head coach Michael Cheika and new Director of Rugby Scott Johnson otherwise a failure in Japan is all but guaranteed.
History, as we know, is a great teacher and the lesson from mistakes past that Cheika and Johnson need to reflect upon is the All Blacks of the 1991 Rugby World Cup.
Few could argue that the All Blacks between 1987 and 1991 were not a magnificent team featuring the likes of Sir John Kirwan, Sean Fitzpatrick, Michael Jones and Grant Fox who trampled all until an unlikely Wallabies team defeated them in Wellington in 1990.
As the 1991 Rugby World Cup approached the All Blacks had experienced turbulence in their camp seldom seen before. Skipper Wayne ‘Buck’ Shelford had been dropped and New Zealanders could not decide whom should actually coach their national side to the tournament.
The protagonists were the Aucklander John Hart, educated at the University of Auckland who had stunning success with his native side who truly were the greatest provincial team on the planet from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s. Hart was a sharp, articulate, intelligent operator who always presented well and was well versed in his public persona.
His opponent was the incumbent Alex ‘Grizz’ Wyllie who is a true product of New Zealand’s south. An All Black forward and captain himself, Wyllie was gruff and uncompromising who appeared to have little regard for his public persona. He was the All Black coach and that was it! Full stop.
Wyllie chiseled out his own coaching reputation with his native Canterbury, regaining the prize of New Zealand Rugby, the Ranfurly Shield during his tenure at Christchurch. This coupled with defeats of the British and Irish Lions in 1983 and the Bledisloe winning Wallabies of 1986 no doubt had rightfully earned Wyllie the All Blacks coaching position.
Yet, in one of the more bizarre moves, the New Zealand Rugby Union decided that both Wyllie and Hart should co-coach the All Blacks to the 1991 Rugby World Cup.
The All Blacks were reported to be a split camp divided between the Auckland and Christchurch factions of Hart and Wyllie who each had their own philosophies on the game and selections. Despite finishing an admirable third in the tournament the dual coaching philosophy was proof of the old wisdom ‘Too many chefs spoil the broth.’
In context to the Chieka and Johnson relationship, one is clearly the head coach and the other the Director of Rugby. Not co-coaches as Hart and Wylllie were. But this is 2019, not 1991 and Australian Rugby has never had a Director of Rugby previously and therefore it is new ground for the organization to chart.
Rugby Australia has made it clear they want the Wallabies going deep into the tournament and have employed both Cheika and Johnson to achieve that goal, yet concerningly from recent comments made by Michael Cheika, it appears he has publicly established the tone of the relationship between him and his Director of Rugby.
The Wallabies coach recently told Fairfax media, “After Scott was appointed, he was pretty comfortable in making sure that I had the ability to deliver whatever style of game I wanted to bring,”
I am somewhat skeptical about that statement as it is understood the current Wallabies coach has always enjoyed such latitude. Yet he has not delivered the results so why would Rugby Australia employ Scott Johnson and simply allow him to let Michael Cheika’s brand of rugby continue unabated?
Scott Johnson recently told the Australian media that he wanted to bring ‘skill’ and ‘acumen’ back into the Australian game. That statement alone allows one to draw a rational inference that Johnson currently does not think the Wallabies under Michael Cheika are playing with enough of either.
Logically that makes me skeptical about Michael Cheika’s statement that he essentially could play whatever style he wanted. That statement does not appear congruent with that of Johnsons and makes me question are we seeing the first evidence of the ‘Hart and Wyllie effect’ upon the Wallabies team.
Michael Cheika went onto to further comment, “If there is a drama, we’ll get on with it regardless because sometimes you have the argument, then you’ve got to disagree and commit and get on with what’s best for the country to win the World Cup. Even before if a CEO came down and said, ‘You’ve got to do this’, and I didn’t agree with it, I always had two choices: do it, or not do it and face the consequences. It’s really simple.”
Again, Cheika appears to be setting the tone publicly for Johnson, who is also now a Wallaby selector along with former Wallaby and dual international Michael O’Connor.
What does Michael Cheika truly mean when he said, “We’ll get on with it?” Is that to mean Johnson and O’Connor will just have to step into his line of thinking because Johnson had already told Cheika that he (Johnson) was pretty comfortable in making sure that Cheika had the ability to deliver whatever style of game Cheika wanted to bring?
Why would there need to be selectors if Cheika were allowed to bring whatever style of rugby he wanted. Surely, he could just go on selecting his side for his style if that were the case?
What if Johnson and O’Connor decide that Samu Kerevi should play inside centre for the Wallabies, not Kurtley Beale?
What if Cheika was outvoted on the selection of Michael Hooper, would he really just get on with it?
It is hard to fathom as it appears Cheika thinks he all but has a ‘blank cheque’ given to him by Scott Johnson and I can only infer from his statement that it will be the other selectors that fall into line with the Coach. But I would be surprised if that truly were the case as it is illogical.
Whilst Michael Cheika himself avoided immediate sacking after the 2018 season review it is understood that he did not enjoy the support of at least one very senior Rugby Australia figure. It is further understood that the same figure is quite impressed with Scott Johnson and enjoys the fact Johnson is somewhat of an outsider within the broader context of the traditional Australian rugby culture.
If there were to be a spat between Cheika and Johnson that brought their working relationship into question prior to the World Cup and Rugby Australia were required to sort it out, my money would be on Johnson coming out on top.
The time Michael Cheika has remaining as Wallabies coach is significantly less than the time Scott Johnson has remaining as the Director of Rugby. The challenge they both face within these days and months ahead is that both must bring change to the Wallabies in the selection of an attack coach, playing selections and training.
Whilst I earnestly believe Cheika and Johnson both want what’s best for Australian rugby, did not John Hart and Alex Wyllie want the same for New Zealand in 1991? From the language being spoken by each, I remain skeptical that both are on the same page.
Michael Cheika on Scott Johnson:
Watch the Heineken Champions Cup Final live on RugbyPass throughout Asia and Australia.