Australian rugby’s problems stretch beyond Michael Cheika

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Michael Cheika
London, UK, 24 November, 2018 Australia's Coach Michael Cheika during Quilter International between England and Australia at Twickenham stadium , London, England on 24 Nov 2018. (Photo by Action Foto Sport/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Australian rugby has some major problems at the moment.

The revelation that the board seemed to be seriously considering changing their coach less than a year before the World Cup begins only served to highlight the issues.

Though Rugby Australia have cancelled their call with Jake White, the fact that they even scheduled one speaks volumes.

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Think about this for a minute: a South African, coaching in Japan, initiated a conversation Rugby Australia’s Chief Executive to ask for what was, in essence, a job interview, and until negative public pressure caused a change in plan, was granted one.

What?

With the World Cup so close, the last thing any nation needs is a change of coach. Now is the time to begin building the squad and gelling the 30-or-so players who will have roles in Japan.

Yet such is Michael Cheika’s perceived ineptitude that those running rugby in Australia gave White the time of day. Cheika’s team lost nine of their thirteen matches in 2018, and it is understandable that there is discontent around the Wallabies’ performances.

But Australian rugby’s problems stretch beyond Cheika, and rushing to make a band-aid appointment so close to the World Cup would not help matters. Indeed, to blame Cheika for the team’s failings is short-sighted. The problems stretch beyond just the head coach.

Fly-half issues

Take the issues at fly-half. Bernard Foley has done very little in the last couple of years to warrant his continued inclusion and was rightly dropped in September for the first time in four years.

But there are a dearth of options to replace him. The sole alternative is Matt To’omua, who is more effective at inside centre and had to be hauled back from Leicester, such was the issue. Choice number three is probably Kurtley Beale, another inside centre.

Since 2011, the only man to wear the ten jersey at under-20 level for Australia to earn an international cap at the position is utility back Reece Hodge. That was against Japan last year in a heavily rotated team.

Jack Debreczeni

That is a staggering lack of ability to develop fly-halves, as it is not as if these are untalented players coming through. Jack Debreczeni is one of those to fail to step up, despite making over 50 appearances with the Rebels. Debreczeni has never evolved as a playmaker with the Melbourne side despite four years as the primary ten.

Yet Debreczeni opted to take up a contract with Northland in the Mitre 10 Cup this year and starred. Seemingly shorn of the expectation and weight that inhibits his game at Super Rugby level, Debreczeni played the off-the-cuff, incisive rugby many clamour for from him with the Taniwha, emerging as perhaps the standout ten in the competition.

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But Australia won’t get to reap the rewards of his development. Debreczeni has joined the Chiefs for the 2019 Super Rugby season.

His replacement with the Rebels may well be Quade Cooper, who with a few strong performances could suddenly jump back into contention for the Australia ten jersey.

Look at the other Super Rugby teams, and you won’t see many other options.

The Brumbies will start Wharenui Hawera, a New Zealander, or Christian Lealiifano. It would be a great story to see Lealiifano back in the green and gold after overcoming cancer, but Australia saw him as a 12 before and in Beale and To’omua, two players who offer more are ahead of him.

Hamish Stewart at the Reds may be a long-term solution, but for now isn’t ready to step up. Foley is the Waratahs starter and that isn’t likely to change this year.

It is an issue without a solution, and a change of coach isn’t going to help.

On the back row

Fly half is not the only problem position in Australian rugby.

With two world-class performers in Michael Hooper and David Pocock, the back row should not cause Australia the issues it does.

Yet there is a rotating cast of lacklustre players alongside the duo handicapping much of what the Wallabies are trying to do. From Ned Hanigan to Jack Dempsey, Pete Samu to Caleb Timu, nobody has seized the six shirt.

Indeed, Australia hasn’t managed to produce a difference-making eight or six for several years.

Though Pocock is a consistent performer at the back of the scrum, he’s an openside flanker forced out of position as Cheika tries to include both he and Hooper.

Neither tops six-feet in height so the need for a lineout option at six has perhaps opened opportunities for players like Hanigan.

Deploying a lock on the flank would be an option if Australia had any able and athletic locks to draw from. The second row is another area of weakness for Cheika’s side.

Sean McMahon

The Wallabies best back-rower beyond Pocock and Hooper will be playing in the Australian conference in Super Rugby next year, but won’t be eligible for selection.

It emerged this week that Sean McMahon will join the Sunwolves for the 2019 season despite reported offers from Australian sides. McMahon hasn’t played for Australia since this time last year, and this sends quite the message.

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Though his contract in Japan’s Top League is a lucrative one, the Sunwolves don’t have quite as much financial power. To join them suggests McMahon does not want to return to the Wallabies jersey.

“We’ve been really clear with Sean about what we’d like,” Cheika said of the back-rower. “The ball is in his court.”

Cheika could certainly do with a player of the carrying prowess of McMahon. His athleticism, power and footwork through contact make him a reliable collision winner. But McMahon is no longer eligible for the Wallabies with this move, barring him taking up a contract for the post-World Cup season with an Australian side.

Nevertheless, McMahon doesn’t solve the lack of balance problems in the back row. In fact, he exacerbates the issue, as his skill set may be best suited at seven, too.

A general lack of talent coming through

There is a general lack of talent coming through Australian rugby.

Australia haven’t reached the final four of the U20 World Championship since 2011. It doesn’t help that many of the most promising athletes opt for Aussie rules or to play rugby league, but this is not good enough for a country with the talent-base and investment capability that Australia possesses.

The fact that Adam Ashley-Cooper was brought back into the squad after a two-year absence is another indictment on the system. Ashley-Cooper didn’t tear up trees after moving to Bordeaux and now plies his trade with the Kobelco Steelers in Japan. This is not to say that there aren’t those with real promise emerging. Wing Jordan Petaia is an example.

We only have to look at the National Rugby Championship to see that there are issues of a lack of depth. The Fijian Drua joined the competition in 2017. In their first season, they finished third. This year, they won it.

This was a team who had held their first training camp a month and a half prior to the 2017 season. A team of players with little, if any, experience of a professional rugby environment. Yet, they are the best team in Australia just two seasons since their inception.

With Fiji’s national team growing in stature, who’s to say that they couldn’t replicate the Drua’s success and beat the Wallabies in Japan.

Let Michael Cheika build

Australian rugby has huge issues. Hiring Jake White wouldn’t change that, and that it was even considered is a problem in and of itself. There is a year to go until the World Cup. Australia need to back Michael Cheika. In players like Israel Folau, Pocock and Hooper and the emerging Taniela Tupou they have the talent in key positions to build on.

Let Cheika build over the next year. A coaching change would not be a solution.

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