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Cheika, you got to know when to fold ’em

The Roar The Roar 31/08/2016 Kia Kaha
Michael Cheika © Getty Images Michael Cheika

In my student days, I worked at the Christchurch Casino. Casinos like to portray themselves as places of glitz and glamour but for many they are in fact pits of despair where lives gurgle down the drains.

Case in point: the top 500 players’ club. Known by staff more accurately as the top 500 losers’ club.

For access to this “exclusive club” was not based on the amount of money they won but, rather, the amount of money they spent. And the more you spent, the more invariably you lost. After all, the house always wins.

There were only three times the casino was closed. Good Friday, Christmas Day and the morning of Anzac Day.

On Good Friday a special function was held for the top 500 players. No gambling was permitted but all the food and drink you could put away was on offer.

The doors opened at 19:00. Like a crazed stampede of wildebeest crossing the Mara river, many would rush upstairs at breakneck speed. They’d often knock over waiters holding trays of drinks in a desperate lunge for their favourite machines or tables. There they would remain until gambling resumed at midnight.

If you asked any one of them if such behaviour was normal and might it be suggested they had a little gambling problem, they would probably scoff and snarl at you.

It’s very easy to pick someone one with a gambling problem. They never smile. Talk is restricted to the game at hand. They only have a cold, blank stare at the chips or the robotic feeding of coins into the machines. Tunnel vision makes them oblivious to their surroundings.

Many of these gambling addicts are said to have won big early on or, indeed, their first visit. The expectation of success increases exponentially when you strike big early on. Ensuing losses are shrugged off as minor obstacles to the next big prize. The more they lose, the more entrenched they become.

Michael Cheika appears this year to be similarly in denial. He has a selection and coaching problem. He has introduced quite a few new faces. The problem is he’s chopped and changed more than a casino patron splashing his chips around at different tables.

He knows he’s going to turn his luck around. He just doesn’t quite know how, where and when.

The problem I see with Cheika is that he’s no stranger to success. He did very well for himself in the fashion business and is the only coach to have won both the Heineken and Super Rugby trophies.

He picked up the award for best coach in his first full season as well as steering them to a Rugby Championship and World Cup final.

Moreover, he likes to come into appointments in embattled positions. When Declan Kidney left for Munster in the middle of the 2005 season, Leinster’s chief executive described Cheika’s appointment as a “calculated punt”.

The Waratahs were perennial Super rugby underachievers before his arrival. Nobody would’ve liked to have taken a calculated punt on taking out the ultimate prize in just his second season. Things hadn’t gone too well for him in his previous appointment at Stade Francais but people sure sat up and took notice when he took out the trophy in 2014.

He was a natural fit for the position as Wallaby coach in October 2014. Taking over from Ewen McKenzie in October just one year out from the World Cup was far from ideal. But Cheika seemed to thrive in that embattled environment.

Things didn’t start off too well but nobody in the ARU seemed to bat an eye when he continued with the Waratahs; something unprecedented. Some leeway was given as Cheika was seen as the perfect man for the job, but the pressure must’ve made a bed with his first results.

The November Wallaby tour in 2014 was by no means a success with only first-up wins against the Barbarians and Wales followed by defeats to France, Ireland and England. The Waratahs fell away in form in 2015 and though Australia had a handy schedule in the Rugby Championship, few would’ve tipped them for overall honours.

It’s fair to say Cheika won big in 2015 and few would begrudge his title of best coach at the time. He didn’t quite make the big jackpot but he confidently steered his team in the right direction seemingly restoring pride in the jersey and letting the performances speak for themselves instead of the media circus that had afflicted Ewen McKenzie’s last few games.

For me, England and Wales were Cheika’s finest hours as well as their wins against the Springboks and All Blacks at home in the Rugby Championship. They showed a rounded game for the Wallabies: a combination of heroic defence and ruthless efficiency at the breakdown and the ball in hand.

The problem is a year in rugby can be like a month at a casino. Smiles and confidence can be wiped away in all too brief a moment. Cheika simply doesn’t appear to be enjoying his rugby in 2016. Scowls mixed with sarcastic laughter and profanity.

He was always a coach who wore his emotions on his sleeve but ultimately when things don’t go your way, the joy gets sucked out rapidly from what you do. That’s only human.

I still believe Cheika is the right man for the job but he’s badly in need of an intervention. Someone like Marc Ella or John Eales would do well to pull him aside and lend a sympathetic ear to what he’s been going through and offer him some advice as to how he can turn things around.

The problem is, like a gambling addict, it’s very difficult to own up to having a problem.

Pride goeth before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall. Successful people believe they can turn things around by themselves and the more the world appears to turn against them, the more entrenched their position becomes.

Cheika was adamant an attractive style of rugby was the way to beat England. Nothing is more attractive, however, than a win. By the second Bledisloe Test, that attractive rugby had given way to a higgledy piggledy style of damage limitation. A narrower loss is better than a bigger one.

Things are not going to get easier against a Springbok side battling for its own identity and a Pumas side becoming ever more comfortable and efficient at their own.

Cheika lately seems to be like a casino patron who’s trying different combinations of clothing in an attempt to match the winning outfit he wore when he last won big. The problem is he doesn’t recognise that past successes count for nothing when you don’t approach things with this cold hard reality: you’re only as good as your last game.

In order to win the next game, you need an honest appraisal of where you stand. Someone in Cheika’s private circle needs to step up and tell it how it is.

Every gambler knows

That the secret to survivin’

Is knowin’ what to throw away

And knowin’ what to keep

‘Cause every hand’s a winner

And every hand’s a loser

And the best that you can hope for is to die

in your sleep


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