'Our way' and the highway? End of road looms for Australia's Cheika

Julian GUYER
Australia coach Michael Cheika's contract is up at the end of the year

That Michael Cheika was left asking reporters for "compassion" after Australia's World Cup quarter-final defeat by England suggested his time as the Wallabies' coach was fast approaching its end.

Cheika's contract expires at the end of the year and he had previously indicated he would not reapply for his job if Australia failed to win the World Cup after he had guided them to a defeat by New Zealand in the 2015 final.

Yet when the inevitable probing about his own position came up following an emphatic 40-16 loss to England in Oita on Saturday, Cheika said it was a sign of a "cruel, cruel world" he was being asked that question "two minutes after we've been knocked out of the World Cup".

There was widespread support when Cheika was appointed as Australia coach in 2014 after a scandal involving crude messages sent by Australia back Kurtley Beale to team business manager Di Patston led to the resignation of former boss Ewen McKenzie.

Cheika was, after all, the only coach to have won both the European Cup and Super Rugby titles, having overseen revivals at two previously under-performing sides in Irish province Leinster and the New South Wales Waratahs.

And barely a year into his time in charge he defied the odds to take Australia to a World Cup final.

Cheika was named international coach of the year, with Rugby Australia signing him to a four-year contract.

But that first year was, in retrospect, the highlight of Cheika's reign.

Australia won just four of 13 Tests in 2018, their worst return in 60 years.

That led to speculation that Cheika, a passionate coach who at times doesn't so much wear his heart on his sleeve as all over his shirt, might be sacked.

But Rugby Australia, fearful of upheaval so close to a World Cup, kept him on.

Instead attack coach Stephen Larkham left, while the appointment of Scott Johnson as director of rugby to a new selection panel curbed Cheika's power.

- Folau controversy -

Australia's 47-26 win over New Zealand in August was a promising sign but the All Blacks thrashed them 36-0 in Auckland a week later.

That Australia then kept changing their half-backs at the World Cup suggested they did not know their best side.

Some problems confronting Australia, however, won't be solved by a change of coach.

Rugby Australia's decision to do without Israel Folau at Japan 2019, sacking him after the world-class fullback published a social media post saying "hell awaits" gay people, proved highly controversial.

The ensuing fall-out has seen Folau pursue ongoing legal action and opened up a split in Australian rugby between those critical of Folau's actions while others, including some who share his strict Christian beliefs, argued he should have stayed in the side.

An even bigger structural issue is that rugby union in Australia faces fierce competition for talent from rival football codes, particularly Australian Rules, meaning the recruiting skills Cheika demonstrated as as a club coach were of little value at Test level.

That need for union to 'sell itself' as an attractive spectator sport may have been behind Cheika's comments when he said after Saturday's loss: "I'm not going to go to a kick-and-defend game.

"Call me naive but that's not what I am doing.

"I would rather win playing our way, that's the way Aussies want us to play."

But the Australian sporting public may well have tolerated a degree of flexibility if it meant the Wallabies were still in the World Cup.

Professional sport is largely about winning and, as Cheika knows full well, there are no extra points in rugby union for artistic impression.