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

The Guardian logo The Guardian 5 days ago Bret Harris
a man looking at the camera: Michael Cheika’s immediate future will be clearer once Rugby Australia’s board meet on Monday. © AP Michael Cheika’s immediate future will be clearer once Rugby Australia’s board meet on Monday.

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 lead-up 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 Cup-winning 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.

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Hooper and the likes of fellow backrower David Pocock and Foley, a vice-captain, 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 back-up 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?

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