As the Springboks look to continue their momentum and feed off the high of beating the All Blacks in New Zealand, they should beware a desperate, unorthodox Wallabies coach whose job may be on the line in Port Elizabeth on Saturday. Michael Cheika will do anything to win.
In much the same way as Rassie Erasmus was under pressure in Wellington, with the vultures swirling above his head, Cheika arrives in Nelson Mandela Bay with all the attributes of a dead man walking.
The Australian media are calling for his head due to a losing streak against the All Blacks that has almost stretched back a generation, and a Wallaby crisis of form that in some ways mirrors the Boks in recent years. Cheika has the added problem that he is seen as a maverick, a renegade, and someone who delights in getting on the wrong side of people.
He is abrasive. After last year’s corresponding Test in Bloemfontein, journalist Simnikiwe Xabanisa humbly suggested that Dillyn Lleyds’ hair had been pulled by Israel Folau – Cheika flew into him, and asked whether he had ever played rugby. And then, despite all the video evidence in the world, continued to suggest that there was never a hair-pulling incident.
This is the same coach that verbally abused a SuperSport cameraman, and who is regularly seen flying off the handle in the coaching box. He’s had enough meltdowns to compile a youtube montage.
But this week he is desperate.
There is something different to his demeanour and he is fighting a fight on all fronts to keep his job. The Australian Rugby Union have had to publicly come out and support him – and anyone who knows anything about sporting contracts knows that can be a kiss of death in itself.
The Wallabies have now lost to the Pumas at home and one win from their next two matches in the Rugby Championship is probably the bare minimum if Cheika is to see out his contract until after the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
The point is that all the focus will be on the Springboks this week. After all, they have just beaten the world champions. They are the ones on a high and they have an expectant home base not only looking forward to continuing the current winning streak against Australia in South Africa, but also with one eye on the return showdown against the All Blacks at Loftus Versfeld next week.
The pressure is on the Boks as well to back it up with a second performance to prove that Wellington was not a fluke, and while all the attention is on them, Cheika is crafting a smash-and-grab game plan to ambush the Boks. Winning is the only thing that matters to Cheika at this point and if he has to stomp on everything to get there, he will.
A Kiwi newspaper once labelled Cheika a “clown” but he is far from that. He’s a street fighter with the outlook that attack is the best form of defence and that no matter what the evidence, he will defend his team.
Cheika knows there is only one way to stop the axe coming down on his neck. He knows that the Wallabies’ position at seventh spot in the world rankings is something that will be used against him, and he knows that – as was the case in Brisbane earlier this month – burgling a win against the Boks is his only option.
“Everyone loves to look back because you can pick the bones out of that, whether it’s positive or negative,” said the embattled Wallabies coach. “The real art is to look forward because that’s all that counts – that next game.”
Cheika will have the Wallabies scrapping for any advantage this weekend. His job depends on it, and you can be sure he’s ready to fight.