A coach-less Wal­la­bies team at the World Cup? It's not as mad as it sounds

The Guardian Australia - - Sport - Bret Har­ris

With Rugby Aus­tralia’s board sched­uled to meet on Mon­day to dis­cuss the im­me­di­ate fu­ture of Michael Cheika, one ar­gu­ment be­ing trot­ted out for the re­ten­tion of the Wal­la­bies coach is that there is no gen­uine al­ter­na­tive. Most lead­ing coaches are al­ready locked up for the World Cup in Ja­pan next year and Rugby Aus­tralia would need to re­sort to some­one who has not been in­volved in the in­ter­na­tional game in re­cent years. Such a move would carry its own risks and re­wards.

But is there an­other op­tion Rugby Aus­tralia should con­sider? If a suitable al­ter­na­tive to Cheika could not be found, might the Wal­la­bies be bet­ter off with­out a coach? There is a prece­dent. In 1978 Wal­la­bies coach Daryl Haberecht suf­fered a heart at­tack in the leadup to the third Test against the All Blacks at Eden Park. The All Blacks had won the first two Tests and the Wal­la­bies were des­per­ate to avoid a se­ries white­wash.

For­mer Wal­la­bies coach and then Queens­land coach Bob Tem­ple­ton was in Auck­land at the time and of­fered to step into the breach and coach

the team for the third Test, but Wal­la­bies cap­tain Tony Shaw re­jected Tem­ple­ton’s ap­proach. The team closed ranks and coached them­selves to an his­toric 30-16 win, which fea­tured a record four-try haul to back­rower Greg Cor­nelsen. Re­garded as one of the great­est vic­to­ries in Aus­tralian rugby his­tory, the coach-less win was a mile­stone, spark­ing the rise of Aus­tralian rugby in the 1980s and 1990s.

Should Rugby Aus­tralia con­sider a sim­i­lar ap­proach for the World Cup year, which in­volves just five Tests be­fore the tour­na­ment kicks off in Septem­ber? Cheika has guided the Wal­la­bies to vic­tory in just 17 of 42 Tests, an ap­palling record which would al­most cer­tainly have led to the sack­ing of his im­me­di­ate pre­de­ces­sors. If the coach is not pro­duc­ing ac­cept­able re­sults, why have a coach at all?

For­mer Wal­la­bies 1999 World Cup­win­ning coach Rod Mac­queen set out to de­velop a team that was ca­pa­ble of coach­ing it­self. With the likes of John Eales, Ge­orge Gre­gan and Tim Ho­ran, among oth­ers, lead­ing the way, the Wal­la­bies be­came a self-de­ter­min­ing team. Of course, this ap­proach has the po­ten­tial to back­fire spec­tac­u­larly if the play­ers are not fit for the task and it rep­re­sents a huge gam­ble in a World Cup year. But whether the cur­rent se­nior Wal­la­bies pos­sess the same lead­er­ship qual­i­ties as Shaw, Eales or Ge­orge Gre­gan is an in­trigu­ing ques­tion.

At the start of the in­ter­na­tional sea­son in June, Cheika pro­claimed he was em­pow­er­ing the se­nior Wal­la­bies with more say over strate­gies and tac­tics. Their poor 4-9 win-loss record this year – the worst since 1958 – would sug­gest that the move to­wards player power has been un­suc­cess­ful. But it would have been dif­fi­cult for the play­ers to make a con­struc­tive con­tri­bu­tion to the way the team played when the side was con­stantly chopped and changed, in­clud­ing three start­ing play­mak­ers in Bernard Fo­ley, Kurt­ley Beale and Matt Toomua – cru­cial on-field di­rec­tors.

Wal­la­bies cap­tain Michael Hooper led the NSW Waratahs to the Su­per Rugby ti­tle in 2014 and the Wal­la­bies to the 2015 World Cup fi­nal, but there has been crit­i­cism of his lead­er­ship this year, par­tic­u­larly his de­ci­sion not to kick for penalty goal in the 9-6 loss to Wales in Cardiff last month.

Hooper and the likes of fel­low back­rower David Po­cock and Fo­ley, a vice­cap­tain, are the best lead­ers in the Wal­la­bies camp and an ef­fec­tive lead­er­ship group would be ca­pa­ble of run­ning the team with the help of an in­de­pen­dent se­lec­tion panel, spe­cial­ist as­sis­tant coaches and a strong man­ager, who en­sured dis­ci­pline and the team’s cul­ture was main­tained.

In the mod­ern game a team cer­tainly re­quires the ex­per­tise of a backup staff to make the side func­tion, but does it re­ally need a head coach if the play­ers are ca­pa­ble of coach­ing them­selves?

It may be that Rugby Aus­tralia gen­uinely be­lieves Cheika can turn things around just as he did in 2015 af­ter tak­ing over from Ewen McKen­zie. Or maybe they will make changes af­ter meet­ing with Cheika in Syd­ney next week, ei­ther to the head coach­ing po­si­tion or the as­sis­tants.

But if Rugby Aus­tralia is baulk­ing at chang­ing the head coach mainly be­cause of the per­ceived lack of a vi­able al­ter­na­tive, then per­haps they have not can­vassed all of the op­tions, in­clud­ing the idea of the play­ers coach­ing them­selves. The Wal­la­bies have done it with­out a coach be­fore. Can the spirit of 1978 save the team again?

Pho­to­graph: Tim Ire­land/AP

Michael Cheika’s im­me­di­ate fu­ture will be clearer once Rugby Aus­tralia’s board meet on Mon­day.

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