The All Blacks were worthy winners of the Rugby World Cup at the weekend having been the most consistent side not only during the tournament, but also in the year leading up to the World Cup finals. Congratulations to all concerned.
In fact it was a good night for the All Blacks with nearly all the awards from World Rugby going to players from the ‘land of the long white cloud.’ Dan Carter won the World Rugby Player of the Year, World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year went to Nehe Milner-Skudder,and the team of the year award went to the still World Champions. Even in the women’s side of the game the New Zealanders were dominant with Kendra Cocksedge winning World Rugby Women’s Player of the Year and Portia Woodman World Rugby Women’s Sevens Player of the Year.
Another deserved winner was the man who picked up the World Rugby Coach of the Year award, the Wallabies Michael Cheika. Cheika has achieved almost a minor miracle in the way he has turned around the performances of the Wallabies in the past year. Not only that, but also the style of rugby and belief he seems to have instilled in his players.
Cheika returned to Australia in 2012 after a successful period in the Northern hemisphere where he had won the Heineken Cup and the Magners League (now Guinness Pro12) with Leinster. In a crazy situation it was the Western Force who paid his airfare home to interview him for their head coach role, but after attending the interview he had asked them for a ticket back to Europe via Sydney, and he went back home and ended up interviewing for and taking the job with the Waratahs.
Cheika won the Super Rugby title in his second season and stayed on in charge of the Waratahs in this World Cup year, despite being appointed coach of the Wallabies in late 2014. He took over after Ewen McKenzie’s shock resignation, and had very little time with the team before Australia started their 2014 end of year tour of Europe. His team beat Wales but lost to France, Ireland and England. In that game at Twickenham the Wallabies scrum was a disaster. Chieka sacked forwards coach Andrew Blades and brought in Argentinean Mario Ledesma, it would prove a masterstroke.
With a good base on which to build, his half backs suddenly had more time on the ball, which in turn saw them grow in confidence as he encouraged them to run with the ball.
In April of this year the ARU announced that overseas-based players would be eligible for Wallabies selection if they have played more than 60 Tests for Australia and have held a professional contract with Australian Rugby for at least seven years. The adjustment to the policy was approved by the ARU Board and endorsed by Super Rugby CEO’s.
It is believed that Cheika was the man pushing for such a change of policy, and it proved a wise decision. When it was announced the ARU board took all the kudos and Cheika simply welcomed the move stating that greater competition for positions would inevitably lead to a stronger national team.
At the time he was quoted as saying “From speaking with many of them,(the overseas players) I know they still have a huge desire to represent Australia, and would do so to the very best of their abilities if ever called upon once again.”
No doubt those players he spoke to realised how much he had worked to welcome them back into the fold and duly rewarded the coach with outstanding performances at the World Cup. Winger Drew Mitchell was in outstanding form both in attack and defence, while Matt Giteau finally showed on the international stage the talent he had shown at club level. In fact the concussion Giteau suffered in the 25th minute of the Final when he tackled Brodie Rettalick was probably the turning point of the game, despite the Wallabies spirited second half fightback; mind you Carter’s drop goal was also key moment.
Cheika was smart to request that the ARU loosen its policy on players heading to Europe to play, as had he been forced to pick solely from Australian-based players one wonders if he would have had the depth in his squad to steer the team to the final. He certainly would not have had the big game experienced that is needed in a World Cup.
The transformation in the side has been incredible in just under a year. Yet Cheika will know that the real works starts now. He has to maintain that momentum as well as keep winning and taking the World Champions not just to the wire but beat them. All through the World Cup we have heard about the All Blacks having ‘a culture’ where the shirt and the team must come first, a culture that has been nurtured for decades. We have also heard about the faith each All Black has in the systems they play and why they do not panic. Cheika has to try and instil the same pride into his players. He also has to try and create a similar faith in the Wallaby squad that includes new players coming into the side knowing what is expected, and being able to execute those skills.
As exciting as the past six weeks have been and as scintillating as some of the Wallabies performances have been, it is on future performances that Cheika will ultimately be judged. What he has achieved so far has been incredible, and he is a worthy winner of the Coach of the Year award, but can he sustain the intensity, the teamwork and the performances? Many close to the team believe that he can and that this is the dawn of an era where the Wallabies will return as a major force in World Rugby.