It has been 11 months and 16 days since the Wallabies reached rock bottom. Ewen McKenzie quit as head coach on 18 October last year, 15 months after he first took charge and only six days before the team left for their autumn tour. A year out from the World Cup, Australia were in such a sorry state that, as McKenzie told the press, “the easiest thing for me is to exit stage left”. This on the same day Australia lost to the All Blacks in Brisbane by blowing a 10-point lead in the final 20 minutes. Exactly what happened is something we won’t learn until McKenzie and everyone else involved get around to publishing their autobiographies. “I’ll leave you guys to speculate or ponder,” McKenzie said. “I’ll write a chapter in my book.” When he does, whoever buys it best remember Robert Evans old line, “there’s three sides to every story: your side, my side, and the truth.”
The spark was a spat between star back Kurtley Beale and the Australia team’s business manager, Di Patston. Some shambles, this. It started on the autumn tour of 2013, when six Australian players were suspended after going on a drinking jag, and another nine were warned because of their bad behaviour. Some players were said to be incensed by the role Patston played in the disciplinary hearings, as she had been hired only the previous month.
Bad feelings festered. The following June, Beale sent an obscene text to his team-mates, insulting Patston. Only, he mistakenly sent it her too. Beale immediately apologised. He and Patston patched it up as best they could.
In September, on the flight from Johannesburg to São Paulo en route to a Test with Argentina, it all blew up again. Patston quit soon after, later saying that she was so stressed and depressed “life is probably the worst it ever has been”, and: “I’m alive but there have been times I haven’t wanted to be here.” Beale was suspended, McKenzie was caught in the middle. He said that he had not heard about the text. Beale’s manager insisted otherwise, saying that McKenzie had known all along and done nothing about it. In what may have been the lowest moment of the whole sorry business, McKenzie was forced to deny publicly that he and Patston were having an affair.
The squad was split. Some stood by Beale. “As a mate, as a team-mate as a fellow player our support is there with him,” said the captain, Michael Hooper. Others, such as Christian Lealiifano and Quade Cooper, seemed to back McKenzie and Patston, with Lealiifano saying that losing her felt “like losing a mother on tour”.
It was only a year earlier that Cooper was given a three-match suspension himself for saying he felt the environment around the national team under McKenzie’s predecessor Robbie Deans was “toxic”, and that there was “shit going on behind and above the players that affects the whole organisation”. By now, that was beginning to feel like a pretty accurate assessment of the situation.
So, exit McKenzie, and enter Michael Cheika. He is something of a specialist in turning teams around, after his spells at Leinster, who won their first Heineken Cup while he was in charge, and the New South Wales Waratahs, who did likewise in the Super 15.
Cheika has said the first two things he had to do were encourage his players and staff to start having fun again, and to set clear rules about conduct. “The smile had gone off a lot of the faces of the people involved on both sides of the paddock, inside and outside,” he said.
“Number one was to enjoy our work again and get people to enjoy watching the game again; when that happens, you’re more likely to do something with better quality.” On top of that, he needed everyone to know that “respect is given to them, and that they have got to pay it back”, as he said in a newspaper interview. “I need to set rules in place, because there is a code around respect and if someone crosses that line, they will be out. They know that.”
Cheika had two days to prepare for his first European tour. After their defeat to France on 15 November, the team gathered for a frank talk about where they were, and the way in which they could move forward. “We were drawing a bit of a line in the sand,” said Adam Ashley-Cooper. “We spoke about who we actually wanted to be, an identity, how we needed to play for something more than ourselves to achieve something special.”
A 26-17 defeat to England was their sixth loss in seven. But as Cheika said this week, “we are coming from a different direction that they have been and we are rebuilding the belief within our team. For many years we have struggled a bit because that really strong belief in the team as a whole and ourselves was absent. We have worked really hard on that over 12 months since we got together in the last spring tour. Even when we were not winning games on that tour, we were working hard on that point because we knew how important it would be for the team in general and for rugby in Australia.”
The work has paid off. Since then, things have started to click. Cheika also bought in Mario Ledesma as a specialist scrum coach, and had the bright idea of picking both his star opensides, Hooper and David Pocock, to play together in the back row.
Australia’s results have flipped. Now they’ve won six out of their last seven, the only loss to the All Blacks in Auckland in August. “The team that represents the country believes in itself,” Cheika says. “People see that. The kids that are getting up at 5am to watch this game, my own kids included, are looking for that because they can see it in the players in the way we carry ourselves and the fight we put on the field. It is not something that just comes and goes. You have to build it.”
Exactly how strong that belief is will be tested at Twickenham, in what is bound to be one of the most intense matches these players will ever experience. A year ago you would have got long odds against Australia coming through it. Now, with Cheika in charge, who knows? As for the scandal, it was finally settled in May, when Beale was fined but cleared to carry on playing. Only four months ago, that, but it already seems like distant history. Cheika has overseen an astonishing transformation.