Michael Cheika hits back at Neil Francis in war of words
Former Irish lock said David Pocock was a cancer on the game and Cheika has responded
Australia coach Michael Cheika speaks to his players during a training session, ahead of their second Test match against Ireland. Photo: William West/Getty Images
Australia coach Michael Cheika has reacted irately to comments by former Irish lock Neil Francis in which he described David Pocock as a cancer on the game. In the process this possibly re-opened old wounds from Cheika’s time as Leinster coach, when Francis labelled the team ‘ladyboys’ during the pool stages of the 2008-09 Heineken Cup, before they went on to win the first of their European titles that season.
Following Leinster’s defeat in the fourth round away to Castres, Francis wrote: “It was a disgraceful, gutless, leaderless, spineless performance.” Cheika clearly hasn’t forgotten.
“That guy needs to choose his words a little better I think, to be honest. It’s not a very nice thing to say,” said Cheika when the comment was put to him.
When it was pointed out to Cheika that Francis went on to say he had grudging admiration for him, this cut little ice with the Wallabies coach.
“I’m not worried about what he thinks about Poey’s footy, I just think that’s not a very nice term to use. There’s people who are really sick out there. I’m not into that.
“He used to say a lot of stuff about us when I coached Leinster as well. Some unflattering words he would use for his own publicity. That’s fine. One thing to say you want to stop him and another to stop him.”
Looking ahead to Satuurday’s second test, for which Cheika has named an unchanged 23 after last Saturday’s first test win by 18-9 in Brisbane, the Wallabies coach said of Pocock: “He’ll wear it, he’s a tough guy.
“I think it’s been a bit overblown,” said Cheika of Pocock’s capacity to assume the jackal position over the ball and either slow down opposition rucks or win turnovers.
“He’s just going to rucks and trying to make tackles and get up. That’s football, that’s rugby. I don’t know why it’s such a big deal. He’s working real hard, he’s got great work ethic, he’s tough, he can take a battering and he can keep getting up. I don’t see why it’s a big deal. He’s doing what he does. That’s his contribution to the footy team.”
Last Saturday’s test was Pocock’s first in 18 months after a sabbatical from the game and co-incided with a much improved Wallabies’ performance, but Cheika stressed there are contributory factors in Pocock’s effectiveness.
“It’s usually the combination of how the open team plays and how that lets him get into the game sometimes and sometimes it’s not as open for him. But he’s got a lot of other skills apart from just the ruck. That’s good, everyone should just keep watcing him at the ruck and they’ll forget about the other good stuff he does on the field. He carried some good balls last week, distributed the ball well a couple of times, his support play. He’s had a good entry back into the team but he’s got improvements still to go for sure.”
It had been anticipated, by Joe Schmidt amongst others, that Cheika might re-instate Ned Hannigan as a lineout option in the backrow, but he opted to retain Caleb Timu in the starting backrow and Pete Samu on the bench.
“I think it’s fair to give those guys another opportunity, now they’ve both got so much new info. They both did good things on the weekend in different areas. Caleb didn’t get many carries and I think we want to focus on him carrying a bit more footy this week because that’s his strength. Now he knows a bit better the shape of the game he’ll be able to get into that a little bit more.
“Then Pete Samu was excellent when he came on, good work rate, read the game nicely, I’m sure he’ll have a good impact when he comes on this week.”
Another key strategy in the Wallabies’ first Test win was the utilisation of Israel Folau’s aerial threat, and Cheika was asked if there might be some variation in this tactic.
“It depends which side of the field things happen. I was a bit surprised, there was more kicking than I would have thought in the game, but that’s players just reacting to what they’re seeing. And bringing it at the time, which is a rarity for us.
“We worked on a couple of variations, we’re trying to encourage our strategy guys to go with what they think is right at the time and make the good decisions. Whatever decision it is it’s a good one once everyone follows it.
“The other team are putting us under a heap of pressure so whether it’s at the line out or on the ground – they’ve got great operators on the ground too – we’re under a lot of pressure so making those good decisions under heat is a good outcome for us.”
Aside from previous three-Test series, Cheika is also drawing on his experience of five seasons with Leinster of the back-to-back pool rounds in the European Cup.
“I’ve been in those back to back situations before – European Cup you play back to back. There’s an interesting interplay in how to assess and analyse and you make a decision about whether you change or stay the same. Maybe it’s somewhere in the middle, don’t want to give too much away. But we’ve got a way we want to play this weekend and we’ll see how it goes.”
Cheika commented on the return of his former Leinster out-half Johnny Sexton, saying: “He is the maestro. He is running the show, he is in charge and directing traffic all the time. He is a great competitor and he is a great defensive player. Everyone talks about his attack, he is a great defensive player as well.
“He has a great kicking game too. So we have got to be aware. We can’t look at him in particular, because if you start looking at him you will miss out on someone else. The way we can try to do with that is try to be connected ourselves, and bringing a lot of speed in getting ready to play; speed and awareness of what they’re going to bring and then the same when we have the ball, speed and awareness to be ready for the next thing to happen in the game. Because you just never know what’s going to happen out there.”
When Sexton last pitched up in Australia against a team coached by Cheika, on the Lions tour five years ago, it certainly seemed as if the home side went out of their way to rough him up and rattle him.
So do the Walabies have to limit the maestro’s time and space?
“Ha, I saw Johnny, what he wrote about the game against the Lions with the Tahs,” said Cheika in reference to Sexton’s observations about that game in his book Becoming A Lion.
“We just need to play our (game). If we start going out of the line trying to do that stuff, we will get picked off, so easily. Good defence is about being connected. When you do have the opportunity to go with linespeed, you all go together. Because he is smart enough to pick you off otherwise. And he is one of the toughest roosters out there. So you’re not going to knock him about.
“I don’t think there is any focus from me in regards to that. It’s a nice storyline, though. But it’s just us being together and continually turning up in defence.
“That’s your ultimate insurance. It’s still early in the season for us so that’s a really important piece to get right, and be consistent with, if we’re going to hold Ireland at bay.”