Perhaps it was the embarrassment of being the first Australian coach to lose a home series to England that did it, or possibly it was being mocked up as a clown last month. Or maybe just a bad night’s sleep, but after turning the other cheek to Eddie Jones time and again during the summer Michael Cheika has now shown a willingness to engage with his compatriot. And then some.
Accusing the England tighthead prop Dan Cole of scrummaging illegally throughout his career and damning Jones’s behaviour during England’s summer whitewash, Cheika has seized the chance to fight fire with fire as the Wallabies prepare to end their autumn series at Twickenham on Saturday.
Cheika undoubtedly suffered during the 3-0 series defeat in June amid accusations from the New Zealand head coach, Steve Hansen, he was being bullied. He may feel he has little to lose by retorting to Jones, who has no doubt greeted his former Randwick team‑mate’s barbs with relish.
Jones, after all, could not help but lob a few grenades last week, calling Argentina the second-best team in the Rugby Championship in what was a thinly veiled dig at the Wallabies before wasting little time to denigrate the Australia scrum after his side defeated the Pumas.
When it comes to England v Australia it always seems to be the scrum, but Cheika’s involvement in the pre-match sparring is a new dimension, even if he seems to be fed up with Jones’s rhetoric rather than looking for an advantage on the field. “Usually I come in here and I don’t know what I am going to say. I haven’t been getting much sleep with my shoulder and I wouldn’t be as cunning as that – to have it all planned out. I’m more: see how it feels on the day and go with that,” he said.
“Each to their own. I am certainly not judgmental on that. Maybe we are naive, idealistic, but we want the Wallabies to be loved because of the way we play footy. You can still be fiercely determined to win, don’t get me wrong at all. If he wants to play it that way that’s totally fine with me as well, he’s doing whatever he needs. But does it help winning or losing? I’d like to think it’s the players’ skill and ability and mentality on the field that make the difference. I certainly wouldn’t want my players to think that I was winning them games off the field through that stuff.”
It is clear Cheika cares little for Jones’s mind games – even if he says they have not altered his opinion of his former Randwick team-mate – but, as he points out, it is unlikely they would have been close friends had their careers not crossed paths. “I know what I’ve seen from playing footy with him. I wouldn’t know him if I didn’t play footy with him. We wouldn’t have associated. You saw from my reaction in June, I don’t think that’s the way you play it myself. Not if you’re going against your old [country].”
Jones’s response to Cheika’s outburst will be fascinating. On Saturday, after England dispatched Argentina, he said “the best win of the year is yet to come” and the mood in the England camp could not be more different from when these sides last met at Twickenham 13 months ago.
Saturday marks Australia’s 19th Test since then and the fact this is the second of the autumn internationals to fall outside the official World Rugby window is telling. First it means Cheika is likely to be without the scrum-half Will Genia – with Stade Français not obliged to release him – and second, with an additional fee going to the ARU, it shows how desperate times are financially.
“I know what the north think of the south on an overall basis. It doesn’t matter, who is ranked No1, if it’s from the south as it has been for a long time it is still the north who are driving the game because they have the economy,” Cheika said. “We’ve got to keep fighting our corner, the guys in the southern hemisphere, and doing the best we can to stay in the game.”