The Waratahs need Michael Cheika more than ever - but what cost would his return have on Australian rugby?
Given the plight of Waratahs rugby, an organisation in descent before Rob Penney’s appointment in late 2019, it became apparent that the constant gnashing of teeth, pulling at the skivvy-neck coupled with the patting of the ever-perspiring brow became too much for the ‘Deep Thinkers of Daceyville’ and subsequently the likeable Cantabrian became yesterday’s man.
But for whom has he made way for?
Could it, or should it, be yesterday’s hero Michael Cheika?
But firstly, who would want to coach the Waratahs given their current predicament and short-to-mid-term prospects?
The Penney tenure should be a clear warning to all despite what explanations and excuses the current Waratahs administration may proffer. Being appointed head coach of the Waratahs in this environment is akin to winning a ticket on the Titanic!
As I wrote for RugbyPass in 2020: “Taking over from his fellow Cantabrian Daryl Gibson, Penney has accepted arguably the toughest coaching role in Australian provincial rugby.
“He has the unenviable task of implementing his playing style and regime in a decidedly politicised organisation, operating in an exceedingly competitive professional sports market that subsequently demands success yesterday.
“Penney, and his fellow coaches in former Wallabies Matt Cockbain, Mark Bell and Chris Whittaker, find themselves is in a transitional period for Waratahs rugby, and the transition is not a word immediately synonymous with instant success.
“Penney must learn to play the politics while also balancing the head coaching role if he is to see out his three-year contract as he has no history or power base to draw support from if the Waratahs falter early in his tenure. The pressure is on from day one.”
The only person robust enough to manage the ‘Deep Thinkers of Daceyville’ is Cheika, and he, of course, is a Waratahs insider, if not Waratahs royalty. I suggest he is what they are looking for and I suggest he knows it.
The former Waratahs and Wallabies coach made it known in December last year that he still harbours ambitions to coach and if he truly desired to coach the Wallabies again this is the opportunity for him to re-establish himself in the Australian game.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) March 29, 2021
The circumstances at the Waratahs are almost parallel to those of Rugby Australia [RA] in late 2014 when Cheika was initially appointed as Wallabies coach.
RA was on unsteady ground after the untimely departure of Ewen McKenzie and Cheika brought order from chaos in a near messianic way.
It appeared then-RA chief executive Bill Pulver did whatever he had to do to get Cheika to put pen-to-paper, but it came at a cost.
It is understood Cheika subsequently wielded significant power in the halls of RA during most of his tenure until that was somewhat curtailed by then-CEO Raelene Castle, who brought in now-director of rugby Scott Johnson to oversee Michael Cheika in the later years.
It would be fair to say the Cheika-Johnson-Castle relationship was not a harmonious one and it failed to produce results with the Wallabies exiting the 2019 Rugby World Cup after being soundly defeated by England in the quarter-finals and leaving Australian rugby in a smouldering heap that has taken some time to extinguish.
The crux of the issue is that the Waratahs need Michael Cheika now, but RA does not.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) March 29, 2021
It would be nonsense to suggest that Michael Cheika could coach the Waratahs again and not have to work in some capacity with incumbent Wallabies coach Dave Rennie and Johnson both of whom were Castle appointees and lieutenants.
Therein lies the anxiety and the intrigue considering the understood acrimony in the Castle-Cheika relationship.
At a time where Australian rugby appears to be finding some traction, the blistering issue is the Waratahs. Australian rugby needs their side in the Sydney sporting market to be successful if rugby is to continue a resurgence in Australia.
Yet, the answer to that problem could be in itself a problem to the broader Australian game as Cheika distinctly is his own man and his way does not appear conducive to that of the Rennie-Johnson era thus far.
As Cheika told The Times in 2020: “In a footy team there can only be one boss, that’s all there is to it.”
RA chairman Hamish McLennan and CEO Andy Marinos would certainly have a challenge on their hands if New South Wales were to usher in the second coming of Cheika, but Waratahs are in need of their messiah now more than ever.
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