Cheika missing the point over clown jibe

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What did the final Bledisloe Cup match of the weekend teach us? Mainly that New Zealand are good, very good, and after stretching their winning run to a record 18 matches, probably the best ever (a record for a tier 1 side – Cyprus currently hold the all time record with 24 straight wins between 2008 and 2014 but that record may be broken by this time next year). While that conclusion may be somewhat obvious, and I could easily wax lyrical about the All Blacks for the entirety of this article, what is much more interesting is the drama surrounding Australia head coach Michael Cheika. Following the defeat, Cheika delivered scathing interviews to the press, accusing the New Zealand team and media of disrespect. When asked for his thoughts on the All Blacks winning streak, Cheika promptly stated, “I don’t think they respect our anyway, so we won’t give one”. New Zealand Coach Steve Hansen responded with claims that Cheika was ‘hijacking’ the conference.

The whole fiasco began, as so many things do in the international sporting community, with clowns. Actually, no, this particular story stretches back much further – 30 years in fact, to 1986. This date is ingrained into the mind of many fans of Australian rugby, as it is the last time that Australia beat New Zealand at Eden Park. Since then we’ve had 8 Rugby World Cups, 24 Australian captains, 18 New Zealand Captains, 343 Australia matches, the transition of the game from amateur to professionalism, 8 Australian Prime Ministers, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the USSR, the internet, the Gulf War, the Iraq War, a banking crisis, Obama, the Arab Spring, Obama again, Donald Trump and Brexit – I could continue, but I’d risk sounding like Billy Joel. Needless to say, I can somewhat empathize with Michael Cheika’s decision to channel his inner Bernie Sanders and declare that enough is enough. However, there is a time and a place to rally against the establishment and immediately after losing 37-10 to the All Blacks isn’t it.

The Trans-Tasman rivalry is fierce and the build-up to this game was no different. This is where the infamous clown makes its appearance. The New Zealand Herald ran an article the morning of the match with the rather blunt title ‘Send In The Clowns’ accompanying a cartoon of the Wallabies head Coach dressed up in clown attire, complete with a frilly Australian clown shirt. Ignoring for a moment the rather amusing fact that the cartoon was the work of Rod Emmerson, an Australian artist working for the New Zealand Herald, the piece clearly rattled Cheika, to the point where he lost his cool following the game. His captain Stephen Moore backed him up at the press conference saying the cartoon was a major disrespect to the Australian national team and everyone associated with it.  The two seem to have developed a severe case of selective memory, because 12 months ago, the Australian based newspaper, the Sydney Daily Telegraph published a photo of then All Blacks captain Richie McCaw as a Witchetty Grub, prior to the World Cup final. The insinuation being that McCaw had a somewhat relaxed, ‘grubby’ relationship with the rules of the game.

What I’m trying to get at, in a roundabout sort of way, is that international coaches will always be subject to great scrutiny, especially from the media. I doubt Steve McClaren particularly enjoyed the umbrella with which he is now inextricably linked, but unfortunately it comes as part of the job. Either managers let their players do the talking on the pitch, or we start telling the press what they can and can’t write – a slope of the slippery variety that is best avoided.

The likely reason for Cheika’s outburst however, was probably a combination of the above treatment by the press, and the fact that this was a game that Australia could easily have tipped the other way, ending the 30 years Eden Park curse. Looking at the match statistics it’s hard to see why the Wallabies didn’t manage to get more points on the board. 65% possession and 68% territory, only 10 penalties conceded (New Zealand conceded 11), and marginally more metres run than their opponents – a set of facts that should have yielded more than a meagre 10 points. A disallowed try that would have levelled the game was obviously a huge turning point, but the match reinforced an alarming trend for the Australian national team – their lack of cutting edge ruthlessness when they’re applying pressure. Their Number 10, Foley, missed penalty kicks at crucial moments, and they ultimately left themselves open to counter attacks by the All Blacks. Following another defeat (their 8th in their past 11 matches), what they really needed was for their head coach and captain to weather the post match press conference with dignity and sincerity.

Unfortunately for Cheika, he let the pressure get to him, he allowed the New Zealand media and press to get under his skin and once that psychological blow is struck, it’s difficult for the opponent to regain the upper hand. He came across extremely poorly, described by his opposite number Hansen as ‘sulking’ – definitely not the sort of image that the Australian team needs right now, with public support for the Wallabies, and for the game of rugby union dwindling dangerously fast. What Cheika will have to do now, is rally his troops for the upcoming 5 matches against Wales, Scotland, France, Ireland and England. He is a capable coach and he has a capable team. The unfortunate fallout of this Bledisloe Cup match is another chink in the Australian team’s armour, and one that may come back to haunt both Cheika and the Wallabies.  When your opponent mocks you before the match and is the one who is laughing at the end, obviously emotions can take a battering, the best and easily the most satisfying way to counter this sort of gamesmanship is to let your players do the talking on the pitch. A difficult task given the dominant nature of the All Blacks in the international game, but it is one that will ultimately drive the sport forward without sinking to the complaining and sulking tactics that we have seen over these past few days.

Photograph: Wikipedia

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