If it wasn’t clear that Rugby Australia need to move in a different direction before the Wallabies quarter-final loss to England, it should be crystal clear now.
His decision to walk away is the right one. Early coaching credentials aside, the results have proven that Cheika is becoming as outdated as a dinosaur as the game evolves forward with finer margins, greater attention to detail and analytics-driven strategy and improvement.
As in life, some get left behind and it’s hard to argue Australia’s passion-driven coach hasn’t been with one of the worst records as a Wallaby head coach.
It’s not the losing that confuses the most, as Australian Rugby has well-known structural issues that present challenges for any head coach, but it’s the continual defiance and denial that paints Cheika as a man completely out-of-touch that infuriates the fan base.
England have qualified for the Rugby World Cup semi-finals in comprehensive fashion, downing Australia 40-16 in the opening knockout clash of the tournament in Oita. #RWC2019 #ENGvAUShttps://t.co/JPp2WtVXJM
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 19, 2019
The magnitude of the ‘reality disconnect’ for Cheika borders on asylum-level insanity as the one-liners and verbal projectile continue to show he is living in a self-insulated echo chamber.
“I think we have come to the tournament and played, over the last two years, our best rugby,” Cheika told the press following his side’s comprehensive 40-16 loss to England.
If ‘best rugby’ means losing a record amount of fixtures in a calendar year and presiding over the worst results to New Zealand in Australia’s history then yes, they played their ‘best’ rugby. But perhaps that is not an accurate claim to make.
In 2018, this side lost a historic nine of 13 test matches for a win return of just 30 percent, lost to Argentina at home for the first time in history, while an end-of-year tour that had a sole win over Italy was a lowlight as well. Cheika’s reign has been littered with undesirable results, like the 2017 end-of-year tour that saw a record defeat to Scotland. Everywhere you look there are flashing warning lights.
New Zealand are averaging 35.63 points a game against Australia since the 2015 Rugby World Cup, up five points from the 2015 cycle and up 10 points since the 2011 one while scoring twice as many tries.
“We’ve played a lot of attacking rugby, scored some good tries,” Cheika added to bolster his claim that this Wallabies side reached the peak of their abilities.
It’s not attacking intent that is the problem, it is where that intent has been applied combined with a severe lack of execution over these years. Poor timing, poor handling, poor line running and poor passing have been hallmarks of this side, all of which haven’t been improved much with the oversight of Cheika.
It took the sacking of Larkham after the 2018 season and the appointment of Scott Johnson and Rebels attack coach Shaun Berne to see any discernible changes to the Wallabies game, highlighted by a clinical performance in Perth over the All Blacks that offered a glimmer of the potential within this squad.
This is a head coach who can’t seem to diagnose the problems in front of him and find solutions to fix it or adjust his approach to suit what the players are capable of, instead, spilling out garbage rhetoric about belief and happiness within the squad and the work behind the scenes that will pay off tomorrow.
It seems he has created a dangerous environment where the feedback loop is broken, the side seems immune to the results they are responsible for.
Prior to the quarter-final against England, he claimed that he doesn’t analyse opponents before playing them, preferring to focus on his own side. This admission is baffling in itself and flies in the face of logic at the elite level of professional sport.
Six-time Super Bowl-winning New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick adheres to a few main philosophies – taking away what the opponent does best, playing to their weaknesses and a biblical-like dedication to understanding situational football.
Each weekly game plan is tailored to that opponent, something that cannot be done without scrutinising what they do and how they do it and then preparing his side for the situations that may present themselves.
If Cheika is really encouraging his staff not to look at what the opponent does, they are blindly heading into battle each time riding on nothing more than dumb luck and chance.
Reviewing the Wallabies’ Rugby Championship campaign showed they used the same menu of set-piece plays regardless of their opponent, not an indictment but a sign that the Wallabies probably are a long way off Belicheck’s methods.
When queried over whether Australia were tactically outplayed against England, Cheika responded in typical fashion, defending his game plan with a ‘my way or the highway’ attitude.
“Ah no I don’t think so at all,” he said in complete disagreement to the assertion despite a lopsided scoreline.
“Listen, that is the way we play footy. I am not going to a kick-and-defend game.
“Call me naive but that’s not what I am going to do. I would rather win our way or no way. That’s the way Aussies want us to play.”
Exiting out of your 22 with an urgent clearing kick is not ‘going to a kick-and-defend game’. Depending on your approach, a contestable kick moving to a midfield zone can open up fast-break opportunities and open up your counter-attacking game.
It is also just the easiest way to release territorial pressure from a zone in which errors are extremely costly, which this Wallaby side could benefit from instead of playing mindless carries with limited hopes of breaking the line.
You can trace back many instances of the Wallabies coughing up points through ill-thought exit strategies all through Cheika’s time at the helm. Again, in a World Cup knockout game, it cost them 10 points in the first half and it could have been more.
All the while the Wallabies pounded away against a 14-man white wall when they did get to the other end, with just Elliot Daly scanning the backfield by himself. The time and place to put in a few targeted short attacking kicks was in England’s 22, not on their own 10.
This all fed into England’s hands as they built the scoreboard pressure they needed to choke Australia out of the match with clock-draining territorial kicking moving from set-piece to set-piece and winning kickable penalties.
The compounding pressure led to a couple of horrendous passes leading to more points for England to seal the deal. Look back at all seven of Cheika’s losses to England and you will find games that played out in very similar circumstances that haven’t been learned from.
Despite all that is going on in Australian Rugby, there are some extremely talented players on this team. When you see mindless rugby being played over-and-over, you can’t help but think better results and performances were achievable, not just at the World Cup but over this entire four-year period.
No coach in Australian history accumulated as much power yet delivered so little and not been held accountable. Cheika’s ivory tower needs to be torn down in no short order following his departure.
Without the dignity to fall on his sword quietly or take any accountability publicly for what has transpired over the last few years, Cheika walks away on his terms with pure arrogance pointing fingers.
“When the time comes I’ll tell them,” he said in the post-match press conference.
That right there sums up the whole problem with this situation with this power vacuum he has built for himself.
They should have been telling you, mate, and probably about 18 months ago.
Raelene Castle labels Cheika’s legacy as ‘incredibly disappointing’:
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