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.

Contributor

Dean Ryan

The GuardianTramp

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