Sunday, 10 January 2016

OSM - Cheika in League of His Own

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Michael Cheika learned his rugby at Randwick District Rugby Club thankfully. The evidence very clear to see last Saturday at Twickenham in the defeat of England. The Coogee native undoing the stricture of England’s play with a return to more classic rugby play that we once knew as the Union game. Ditching that over reliance on power and rigidity that has marked the rugby league influence over recent years with a plan that allowed the true skills of his out half then dominate the game plan. None better than Bernard Foley the Wallabies standoff to exploit England’s obvious weaknesses on the night. Very ably assisted by two current giants of the breakdown speciality, Michael Hooper and Zimbabwe born David Pocock. Both of whom come from a long lineage of Aussie flankers; Greg Smith, Simon Poidevin, Mark Loane, Greg Cornelson and Viliami Ofahengaue

The influence of rugby league over union in the early years saw little traffic with just a few union players seeking the lucrative advantages of the paid code. Welshman Jonathan Davies being the most quoted example after he switched to Widnes in 1989. Primarily frustrated by lack of professionalism in all aspects of the union game at the time. Also unable to survive on the meagre stipend offered by the Welsh rugby union or benefit from the one free jersey per season on offer at the time. Albeit he eventually returned at the end of his career – for personal reasons – to play for Cardiff and back to his perhaps first sporting love. 

In 1994 another Wales international Scott Gibbs left for St Helen’s from where he was selected nonetheless to play for Wales at 1995 rugby world cup in South Africa. After two seasons Gibbs returned to the union and toured with the British and Irish ions in 1997 forming part of that historic winning side. His strength and power becoming legendary in the Welsh Valleys and a player that also returned to his union roots after the foray into league. In contrast those from the league game who saw prospects in the union game were more numerous. Especially when it all became professional in 1995 and names lie Brian Carey, Andy Farrell, Jason Robinson, Lote Tuquiri, Sonny Bill Williams move over.

In time they were to be joined by coaches who offered exciting new defensive options for union that were unheard of at the time. Yet an integral part of the thirteen man discipline with some of the early adapters like former high profile players like Shaun Edwards joined WASPS as defensive coach in 2000. A move that was the start of a successful partnership with club coach at the time, Warren Gatland, and has endured to this day and seen Edwards be part of the 2009 British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa. Perhaps setting the example for all the others that followed such as Andy Farrell, who ventured into coaching at Saracens after his union playing days ended. As did Ireland defensive coach Les Kiss who made the transition from The Maroons in Queensland and playing the State of Origin in 1986 to North Sydney Bears and then the Springboks. 

Such transitions are now more common place and form the backdrop to some cathartic changes in the size of rugby union three quarters. All now bulked up and by definition increasing the physicality of the game to almost dangerous levels given League has been traditionally been a contact game. With recycling through multiple phases prerogative. As opposed to the Union game which focused more on the avoidance of contact in the backline and subtle passes. Or how else could you explain the selection of Jim Renwick or Ian McGeechan for Scotland decades ago as neither were big men as defined by modern standards. Yet both gifted with acceleration, sidesteps and jinks that caused havoc for many an opponent in the old five nations. Not unlike Ireland’s Mike Gibson, Paul Dean, Brendan Mullin or indeed the legendary Jackie Kyle. 

Today those names would fail to make the squad, never mind be selected to play as today Sam Burgess or Mathieu Bastareaud are the prototypes for the three quarter line. Midfielders of eighteen stones in weight and heights of six foot plus the prerequisite for first and second centre in the professional game. An Irish weakness for many years no doubt even with the talents of Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy on display. One of the changes that has made the union game poorer as the focus is all about the crash ball rather than the deft touch that O’Driscoll oozed. Thankfully Cheika is not swayed by that style with his normal pairings of Matt Giteau and Fijian born Tevita Kuridrani 

As England heal the psychological scars of their Australian unravelling at the weekend their Head coach, Stuart Lancaster, needs to examine whether predictability of their rugby league style played its part in their downfall. Especially to a non-conformist like Cheika who learned his game at the club that produced some of the most unconventional rugby players. David Campese perhaps the most renowned. Or the indigenous Ella brothers who were a major discovery at the time. Indeed a mind reared on such vision was always going to find the way to beat the pregame favourites. The second try by Foley typifying those pure roots and relying on the old style of switch move that caught all the English players’ space watching and totally flat footed. Something more reminiscent of the Jeremy Guscott days.

That unpredictability neutralised even the best laid plans and dismissed the supposed power and superior bulk of the England defensive line. A plan that Andy Farrell would have worked so diligently on yet lacking the necessary subtlety and creativity that allowed for a reaction on the field. Something that previous generations that included Paul Dodge and Clive Woodward would have adapted to. Or indeed the spontaneity even of the two Mike’s – Tindall and Catt - in their time. 

Therefore it is no surprise that Farrell has come under scrutiny in the aftermath of that costly defeat. Particularly if – as has been reported - he was the main force behind the Sam Burgess selection when clearly the rugby league convert was far from ready. Unfairly out of his depth against Wales. On the other hand the true tradition of legends like Jason Little, Tim Horan and the Ella’s were retained on the Australia side and offering a spectacle that had not been matched in the tournament since Eddie Jones Japanese XV routed the Springboks. It should be no surprise therefore that the former Aussie coach Jones also did his time at Randwick District Rugby Union club.

Whatever lies ahead for this Wallaby side the "Cheika Way" has rekindled a focus that got lost temporarily under Ewen McKenzie. Albeit he too had the same lineage at the Coogee Oval and was the players preferred choice in 2013. However, off field antics and the added distractions of Kurtly Beale destroyed all the promise that McKenzie brought and the solid reputation hard earned coaching the Queensland Reds. In naming Michael Cheika as the replacement the Austrian Rugby Union seemed like it was making a knee jerk reaction in the face of a crisis. Risking also the early success at the NSW Waratahs making Cheika arrive too soon to the big job even on in his own time lime.

However some of the good work done by Robbie Deans in 2013 - when they were close to securing the Lions test series - had a rampant Lions led by Alun Wynn Jones not showed up at the third test. 

In 2015 the simplicity of the Wallabies game is no doubt emboldened by the current talent on hand. Given union is the minority sports in Australia and up against losing battles with league and Aussie rules for the interest of the young sporting kids. Yet Cheika has been able to fine tune that squad into a winning side capable of beating the All Blacks in the summer to secure the Rugby Championship. The confrontation with Wales this weekend will tell us more about the robustness of the Cheika Way as Gatland will no doubt look breakdown that dominance shown last weekend.

In the meantime one would expect Burgess to end the experiment with rugby union and go back to where his strengths are of better use. On the coaching team Andy Farrell may face a similar choice as some of those previously valued skills are now past their sell by date and become too predictable. No doubt Graham Rowntree will also find his role under scrutiny despite his length of service and successful role with 2013 Lions. Made all the worse by the success Mario Ledesma has delivered to the Wallabies scrum and line out in just a matter of months. Just leaving Mike Catt as a potential survivor along with Lancaster himself who might be punished with a move upstairs as director of rugby for the Rugby Football Union. 

Which would leave him in a league of his own overseeing the future of the English game for the trip to Japan in 2019.

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