Cheika must change ways to pull Wallabies out of slump
Australia coach needs to accept that his selections and tactics are not working
Australia players stand dejected after Saturday’s defeat by Argentina. Photograph: Dave Hunt/EPA
Wallabies coach Michael Cheika has selection and tactical problems. Photograph: Dave Hunt/EPA
After the Wallabies’ frustrating 23-19 loss to Argentina on the Gold Coast on Saturday night the television camera panned to Michael Cheika in the coach’s box. The way he took off his glasses was reminiscent of iconic American newsreader Walter Cronkite when he announced President Kennedy had been assassinated. Cheika did not look angry. He just looked sad. Almost despairing.
But unlike JFK, the Wallabies are suffering from self-inflicted wounds. Just when you thought this Australia team could not sink any lower, they found yet another a way to disappoint.
The Wallabies have slumped to seventh on the world rankings, which is their lowest position since the rankings were introduced in 2003. This year they have been beaten in a three-Test series by Ireland, thrashed twice by the All Blacks, and defeated by an Argentine team which had not enjoyed victory on Australian soil since 1983.
And South Africa’s upset win over New Zealand in Wellington last Saturday has put the Wallabies’ win against the Springboks the previous week into perspective. South Africa targeted the All Blacks and if they had selected their strongest side against the Wallabies, they probably would have won that game too.
What will it take for Cheika to accept that his selections and tactics are not working and that he needs to completely re-think what he is doing if he is to take the Wallabies to the World Cup in Japan next year?
The Wallabies are trying to play a style of game that does not suit their personnel, over-doing complicated, rehearsed set moves and frantically moving the ball from one side of the field to the other where they are making silly mistakes. There is no rhythm to the Wallabies’ play, at least not for any period of time. They look much better when they keep it simple and put the ball through the hands to create space, as evidenced by halfback Will Genia’s try in the 10th minute.
By international standards Argentina had a tiny backline, but the Wallabies did not fully capitalise on their size advantage in the backs. Israel Folau did come off the right wing to run crash balls in the mid-field on occasions – scoring a spectacular try in the 18th minute when he beat five defenders – but the Wallabies’ overriding strategy should have been to play direct, get across the advantage line and then spread the ball wide, attacking the Pumas’ small wingers.
More and more shambolic
As the game progressed the Wallabies’ attack became more and more shambolic. This was partly because of the constant inter-changing of the backs. Inter-changeability in that area is a common feature of the modern game, but Cheika has taken the concept to extremes. It worked for the Wallabies in the first half, but by the time the reserves came on in the second half almost none of the backs were playing in their natural position, creating confusion in attack and defence.
Cheika conceded there was a lack of clarity in the Wallabies’ play and that was the reason why – over-complication and constant re-positioning. And why did the Wallabies continually kick downfield to Los Pumas’ lethal counter-attacking back three of Emiliano Boffelli, Bautista Delguy and Ramiro Moyano? They were asking for trouble.
It is true that the Wallabies would have salvaged the game if Folau had not bombed a try in the final play, which was symptomatic of their overall play, but the Pumas had two tries disallowed and the score should have been a blow-out by that stage. Few of the small crowd of 16,000 would have walked away thinking the Wallabies deserved to win had Folau passed to the unmarked Bernard Foley on his right instead of inexplicably going himself and losing the ball in contact.
As bad as the season has been so far for the Wallabies, their problems may have only just begun. The Pumas Test was their last game on Australian soil for the year. They now face South Africa, Argentina, New Zealand, Wales, Italy and England on the road.
There was an ugly footnote to the Pumas Test when Wallabies blindside flanker Lukhan Tui was involved in a confrontation with a fan. Tui is reportedly taking the rest of the season off as a result. While the Tui drama was an isolated incident, hopefully it will not influence the Wallabies to disengage from their fans for fear of verbal abuse.
Australian rugby cannot afford the Wallabies to lose any more fans than they have already. The only way they can win back disenchanted supporters is to perform on the field to a standard expected of the Australian team. But that will require the Wallabies to accept that they need to change.