Michael Cheika’s grand designs give Australia options not issues at Rugby World Cup | Dean Ryan

While Australia have rebuilt swiftly and astutely under their new coach, England still seem to be learning on the job, unsure of their best plan

There are those who can coach and those who can plan. If you look at the Test careers of guys such as Joe Schmidt and Michael Cheika, whose Australia stand between England and elimination from their own World Cup, you can spot the strings that run through them. The themes which suggest that even fairly seismic events can be handled.

Not much more than a year out from the World Cup, Schmidt lost the foundation of his midfield when Brian O’Driscoll, more an Irish institution than a mere rugby player, called time on a career deep into its second decade. When it became obvious that Gordon D’Arcy, another whose Test time began in the last millennium would also be going, then many coaches might have set a rolling beauty contest in place to find a partnership.

Schmidt simply reached down for Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw, told them to do the simple things well and started the new pairing with a win over South Africa. Likewise as Paul O’Connell signals his time is close, Iain Henderson increasingly looks the part.

Beneath the waterline the feet may have been paddling like hell, but on the surface all looked calm.

About the same time that Schmidt was putting Payne and Henshaw together, Cheika was beginning a Test coaching career that is still less than a year old and which was initially confronted by ongoing underachievement and inconsistency by double world champions.

It was a different mess from that inherited by Stuart Lancaster after 2011, but Cheika had a year, not four years, to heal the splits and bring some pretty big egos to heel. Like the good businessman he is, Cheika started by naming his price and saying to the board he would not relinquish control at the Waratahs either. He got both and three days later jumped on a plane with his chosen squad for a first European tour.

Ten months later Cheika’s Wallabies beat the All Blacks, not something Australian sides have done for a while, to pick up their first Rugby Championship and the manner of that win told us what had been achieved in so short a time. For a start Australia had a scrum. The cute signing of Mario Ledesma, the former Argentina hooker and coach with Cheika at the Waratahs and the recruiting of the loosehead Scott Sio saw to that.

The front row, with Sio making his first start alongside the more experienced Sekope Kepu and Stephen Moore, didn’t just stand up to the All Blacks but won scrum penalties. The other revelation was what went on behind them. Everyone knew that in David Pocock and Michael Hooper Australia had two of the best openside flankers in the world. It was just that, because of injury and the likes and dislikes of previous coaches, they had not played together. They did in Sydney and were an instant success. Kieran Read, Richie McCaw and Jerome Kaino don’t often come off second best.

A week later Cheika reverted to type. After the Sydney win he made a handful of changes for the return Test in Auckland, including his back-row experiment, which was put back in its box, almost so the world didn’t see too much of how Pocock at No8 and Hooper at No7 worked together – or what the No6 Scott Fardy contributed, which was equally important – before they arrived in England.

Add a few more victories such as changing the rules so the best of those playing abroad became available and you get a picture of a coach at his ease. It probably isn’t so, not with all those egos involved, but selectorial difficulties, such as who starts at outside-half, become options not issues.

They key, I suppose, is experience. Both Schmidt and Cheika have been around the block and with some success. After three years and a French title at Clermont-Auvergne, Schmidt took over from Cheika at Leinster and won a Heineken Cup while Cheika took a European title with Leinster and the Super Rugby championship with the Waratahs – both in his second season.

Confronted by problems they have a reservoir of experience on which to draw and you feel they have had the confidence to make the best of the time and matches available to them, even if change and experiment involved the risk of defeat.

By comparison, England’s coaching quartet have been learning on the job so after almost four years we got to Twickenham and that defeat by Wales on Saturday night with a midfield that hadn’t played together before and when Lancaster on Thursday announces his squad for Saturday and Australia it will be as a result of circumstance rather than design.

That doesn’t mean England are going to lose. It’s remarkable what a performance – either collectively or by a handful of individuals – can do on a rugby field. But if England do win, it would be down to spirit and sheer determination, not the coaching.


Dean Ryan

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Michael Cheika’s Australia may yet have last laugh at Rugby World Cup
This week the coach will announce his squad for the tournament on the back of a defeat by the All Blacks but with words of praise from counterpart Steve Hansen

Paul Rees

16, Aug, 2015 @4:05 PM

Article image
Rugby World Cup 2015 power rankings: England plummet, Australia climb | Gerard Meagher
England slip five places after defeat to Wales but Wallabies move up to second, while New Zealand stay top and Ireland are upwardly mobile too

Gerard Meagher

02, Oct, 2015 @10:15 AM

Article image
Australia’s Michael Cheika turns shambles into Rugby World Cup threat | Andy Bull
The former Leinster and New South Wales Waratahs coach used a sense of fun to set the Wallabies on a run of six wins from their last seven matches

Andy Bull

02, Oct, 2015 @4:59 PM

Article image
Rugby World Cup: Guardian writers’ predictions for the tournament
As the England v Fiji opener looms, what will we all be talking about over the next six weeks, how far will England go – and who will come out on top on 31 October?

Robert Kitson, Eddie Butler, Paul Rees, Mike Averis and Michael Aylwin

18, Sep, 2015 @7:44 AM

Article image
Michael Cheika’s blend produces a winning formula for Australia
Michael Cheika’s enlightened persona has transformed the mood in an Australia camp preparing to face New Zealand in the World Cup final and not long ago described as toxic

Robert Kitson

26, Oct, 2015 @8:38 PM

Article image
Let’s give rugby union its identity back and stop copying the All Blacks
Scotland’s World Cup clash with Samoa showed that countries can play to their historic strengths and tap into the DNA of a nation. It’s not all about the power game, as Wales found to their cost

Graham Henry

12, Oct, 2015 @9:34 AM

Article image
The Power List: the 10 sides to fear at Rugby World Cup 2015 | Robert Kitson
Robert Kitson: As the one-year countdown to the Rugby World Cup begins on Thursday, we present our lowdown on the state of the strongest-looking nations

Robert Kitson

17, Sep, 2014 @11:18 AM

Article image
Rugby World Cup 2015 power rankings: New Zealand on top at kick-off | Gerard Meagher
The All Blacks are a surprise early leader, whose greatest threat might be complacency. Australia and England are the sides most likely to challenge them but it looks nasty for Uruguay

Gerard Meagher

18, Sep, 2015 @9:25 AM

Article image
Australia and Wales could face points deductions at Rugby World Cup
Tournament rules may land Pool A rivals Wales and Australia in hot water as both teams have named only two specialist hookers in their squads

Robert Kitson

02, Sep, 2015 @9:00 PM

Article image
Australia’s Michael Cheika keeps powder dry while predecessors stir the pot
Bob Dwyer and Eddie Jones have both fired broadsides at England in the buildup to Saturday’s clash at Twickenham but the current Australia coach prefers to focus on his side’s deeper motivations

Andy Bull

01, Oct, 2015 @3:44 PM