Former Wallaby blames players, not coach
WALLABIES great Jeremy Paul has given a passionate defence of under siege coach Michael Cheika and believes the blame for the latest Bledisloe Cup meltdown lies with the outclassed players.
Paul, a former hooker who played 72 Tests for Australia, spoke out in the wake of last Saturday's 38-13 thrashing at the hands of the All Blacks, as the Wallabies' Bledisloe drought looks set to extend to 17 years.
That performance triggered calls for Cheika's head, led by veteran ESPN rugby writer Greg Growden, who said his "time is up."
That pressure will only mount further should the Wallabies fail to front in this Saturday's rematch at Eden Park, a graveyard in which Australia has not tasted victory since 1986, when Bob Hawke and Crocodile Dundee were reigning supreme.
But Paul, who played under Rod Macqueen, Eddie Jones and John Connolly with the Wallabies, dismissed that train of thought as "rubbish".
"It all comes back to your cattle and I personally would have loved to have played under Michael Cheika," Paul said.
"And I know everyone I played with - John Eales, George Gregan, Stephen Larkham - they too would have loved to have played under Michael Cheika because we understand how good a coach he is.
"Coaching is not just about plays and how to do a lineout, it's about passion and the confidence he can draw out of an individual.
"I can tell you Michael Cheika has that.
"I laugh and scoff at people saying he's not the right person for the job.
"My God, he's the best coach we have and unfortunately, if you're going to look at the reason that we're in this situation, it's the cattle."
Cheika has achieved the ultimate club success in both hemispheres, guiding Leinster to their first Heineken Cup triumph in 2009 then the Waratahs to a maiden Super Rugby title in 2014.
With the Wallabies, Cheika won the truncated 2015 Rugby Championship before piloting them to the final of that year's World Cup.
But results outside of that have not been flash and Australia currently sits fifth on the world rankings behind New Zealand, Ireland, Wales and England.
Paul was asked to sum up Cheika's strengths and weaknesses.
"From the outside he comes across as quite an intense individual," Paul said.
"He's passionate but that's what I love about Michael Cheika.
"He got Australia to a 2015 World Cup final, we had no chance of getting to that.
"We also should have won the Bledisloe Cup last year, barring 30 seconds of All Blacks brilliance in the Dunedin Test, we should have won last year."
Paul also pointed to Cheika's influence in creating a more collaborative environment within the Australian game, with the four Super Rugby clubs sharing information and ideas with their Wallabies counterparts.
"He's the first coach to bring together all the franchises and have a fundamental list of skill acquisition, specifically for positions," Paul said.
"Michael Cheika created that, to bring all the stakeholders and franchises together.
"It's something, when I was on the RUPA board, we were screaming for.
"It's something the All Blacks have done and it all trickles down.
"I love Michael Cheika and it makes me laugh that anyone thinks he's under pressure."
As for Cheika's eventual replacement, Paul advocated for a partnership between Cheika's current assistant, Larkham, and breakdancing Crusaders coach Scott Robertson.
"I don't know why we're not chasing someone like him if Michael Cheika leaves after the World Cup."
Paul also offered his expert analysis of the Wallabies' lineout meltdown at ANZ Stadium.
Australia produced the worst lineout performance since Fox Sports Lab began recording statistics in 2007, winning just four of their 12 throws, as Tatafu Polota-Nau and Tolu Latu failed to get on the same wavelength as their targets.
"Four of them were poor throws, either too short or overthrown, and then there was four good defensive reads by the All Blacks, where their defence put themselves ahead of our jumpers to disturb the ball or win it cleanly," Paul said.
"The All Blacks' lineout is the best in the world.
"They are very good at reading and that's what happens with pressure and lineouts.
"If you lose one, it's not too bad if you can't get past it, but if you lose two or three, the pressure is quite remarkable, it's a very lonely place as a hooker.
"And then people start missing lineout because they're under pressure and it becomes a calamity of errors.
"We also lost five scrum penalties so when your set piece is under so much pressure, 13 bits of possession is an astronomical amount to give away in Test footy."
For all that, Paul expressed optimism that the Wallabies could fix their set piece within a week, particularly if Taniela Tupou is declared fit to play.