Australia withstood a furious late charge to upset New Zealand 23-18 in a pulsating Bledisloe Cup match on Saturday.
With the spotlight firmly on their head coach after proving some of his doubters wrong last weekend, we ask: Is Cheika the right man for the Wallabies job?
Let us know what you think as two of our writers debate on the topic.
Michael Cheika may be the only coach in history still viewed with some suspicion after beating the All Blacks.
Not even a heart-gripping victory over the best sports team on earth is enough to wash away the disillusionment of a fanbase that has seen the Wallabies struggle many more times than succeed since their 3-0 humbling at the hands of England on home turf.
However, to now believe in Cheika’s project is not simply a kneejerk reaction to an improbable win.
Think of the issues that Cheika has had to face since guiding Australia to the 2015 World Cup final – a feat that was impressive enough as a rookie international coach picking up the pieces from the troubled Ewen McKenzie era.
Whereas England and New Zealand are backed by an incredibly strong domestic game that incentivises players to remain in their countries, rugby in Australia is being torn apart by a bumbling union.
The Western Force saga – which has seen them axed from Super Rugby – has undoubtedly had a rippling effect in a sport that can ill-afford to absorb bad press with plenty of other pursuits, such as the NRL and AFL, for Australians to follow.
Furthermore in this year’s Super Rugby, aside from the Brumbies, Australian sides stooped down to a level usually reserved for Italian teams in the PRO14. But enough of the excuses – it’s time to think positively with the World Cup two years away.
What truly separates the All Blacks from the rest is an awesome strength in depth and the Wallabies can now start to finetune their 23 after solving the questions that haunted their first XV.
The emergence of flanker Jack Dempsey, saddling up with Sean McMahon and Michael Hooper, should make this back-row unit as menacing as ‘Pooper’ and Scott Fardy in 2015. And don’t forget David Pocock is returning after his sabbatical.
Kurtley Beale is also back in the mix and there’s ample cover in the versatile Reece Hodge and Samu Kerevi. Marika Koroibete is a force on the wing but don’t forget Dane Haylett-Petty.
How all these pieces fit will be interesting now that Cheika has so many to play with.
One swallow does not a summer make. Yes the Wallabies did beat the All Blacks, but it is just one game – as exhilarating as it may be for Australian fans to be able to silence the crowing Kiwis for five minutes. But Cheika must now stay on this path.
The biggest issue for the Wallabies since the Rugby World Cup in 2015, and make no bones about it Australia’s performances over the last 18 months have been poor, has been Cheika’s very odd selections and his curious tactics.
He has been banging on and on about playing attractive rugby, bringing the crowds back, but the Wallabies were not yet ready to play that type of game – as England proved so comprehensively in June last year and Scotland confirmed just a few months ago.
To play that style of game, just ask Steve Hansen, you need to establish a solid forward platform at the set piece, and you need to be winning your collisions and the breakdown battle.
The problem was the Wallabies never seemed to have that forward dominance and rather than fixing the issue Cheika persisted with bizarre selections.
Many critics noted a bias in Cheika’s selection policy, with the former NSW coach seeming to pick Waratahs players on their performances of 2014 not 2017. But now finally Cheika is swallowing his pride and getting his selections right.
The formally outcast Reece Hodge has been returned to the starting line up and has been the Wallabies best player over the last month.
Finally Ned Hanigan has been jettisoned for Jack Dempsey and Marika Koroibete looks as good a finisher as anything the All Blacks can come up with.
Cheika has also been lucky – Hodge only returned to the team due to the injury of Dane Haylett-Petty. So Cheika has one big scalp, but November is when we will really see whether the zebra has changed his stripes. Cheika must pick and stick now.
He has discovered a winning formula and he needs to stay with it. For now, the jury is still out, which is exactly how Cheika would want it.
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