Finegan: Wallabies need to drown out white noise

The Rugby Championship
by Owen Finegan

Popular opinion is that the Wallabies ship is sinking, but I’ve never really been one for popular opinion.

Eleven months ago Michael Cheika was the toast of Australian rugby, transforming the floundering Wallabies to Rugby World Cup contenders, almost champions.

So why is it, after six losses in a row, the biggest question people are asking me is, ‘What is wrong with our Wallabies?’, less than a year after a nation-inspiring run.

Michael Cheika steered Australia to a World Cup final. Photo: Getty imagesIn my first year as a Wallaby we were referred to many times as the "Woeful Wallabies". It wasn't a pleasant time for the team or for the Australian Rugby Union that was for sure. 

But, three years later the nucleus of that squad became World Champions, and suddenly Rod Macqueen was touted as a genius.

I have had first hand experience of Michael Cheika's coaching style at Randwick where he lead the club to a title in 2004.

What you see is what you get - a very passionate man who wears his heart on his sleeve and is never shy in letting you know his feelings or expectations, with an honesty that players come to respect.

I was also coached by Cheika in Leinster where he took over a strong squad with a history of underperforming and led them to domestic and European success.

Michael Cheika turned Leinster's fortunes around. Photo: Getty ImagesWhile on-field success is easily measured in trophies,  quantifying player development isn’t quite so easy, but that is something for which Cheika has a true eye.

The recent resurgence of Irish Rugby has been led by players like Johnny Sexton, Cian Healy, Devon Toner, Jamie Heaslip, Rob Kearney and Sean O'Brien, all of whom were brought through the academy ranks by Cheika.

 Cheika led a similar journey at the NSW Waratahs where an always strong province and playing roster took more than 20 years to win its maiden Super Rugby title.

To be blunt, any talk of Cheika being a one-trick pony and purely a ‘motivator’ of individuals is, quite frankly, rubbish. 

Michael Cheika earns respect from all his charges. Photo: ARU Media/Stu WalmsleyThis Wallabies team that performed admirably in the Rugby World Cup is in a position of transition.

The culture, mix of senior and newly capped Wallabies and their changing style of play is a jigsaw puzzle that will need time and expertise to finesse.

The Wallabies, and Cheika, were accused of being bullied by England and then when they stood up to the All Blacks they were accused of being disrespectful and letting their aggression get in the way of performance.

When you’re on the wrong side of the scoreboard ledger, the criticism flows thick and fast and every decision is deemed to be wrong.

The 'Pooper' combination is just one scary element of the Wallabies backrow. Photo; Getty ImagesThen there's contention around the selection of the "Pooper" and backrow combination and the make-up of the inside backs and the best position for Israel Folau. These three would be 1-2-3 in the John Eales medal voting, and all of a sudden, the pundits are saying it’s not working.

When you are losing all you can do as a team is become more insular, block out the noise and concentrate on the things that matter. Your individual performance and the impact that has on your teammates and then the results are a by-product of that tunnel vision. 

As an Ex-Wallaby who has been in a very similar position I refuse to question the integrity and passion of this Wallabies team.

It is disappointing to see individual players and coaches targeted for the lack of performance.

We have shown a tendency to compete in periods of matches, but consistency of skill has let us down. It is consistency we lack, not commitment.

The Force want to stop their second half slowdowns. Photo: Getty ImagesThis weekend’s Test against a South African team that has also struggled for form is as far as this Wallabies team needs to look. Cheika uses the term day-by-day, then week-by-week often, and this week is no different.

South Africa will be trying to reinforce the physicality that England and New Zealand imposed on the Wallabies, that's always been the South African way.

Suncorp Stadium presents another opportunity to get the train back on the tracks and steaming full speed ahead with Cheika and Stephen Moore feeding the coal. 

As an Australian I find the lack of support for our team disconcerting, but can understand it is a manifestation of passion. 

I know one thing for sure, though, Michael Cheika, Stephen Larkham and Nathan Grey will not be relying on popular opinion to get the job done.