Crouch, touch … re-engage
No Mr Nice Guy ... Michael Cheika wants to balance flair with a ''bit of dog'' to get the Waratahs on song and the crowds back in the stands. Photo: Brendan Esposito
IT'S time to toughen up and put the Waratahs first. That's the overriding message delivered to players by a host of Australian and NSW rugby greats who spoke to the Herald about where new coach Michael Cheika should begin his three-year bid to turn around Australian rugby's worst underperformers.
Simon Poidevin and Eddie Jones believe players must bleed for the sky blue before they entertain aspirations of Test greatness.
Mark Ella says Cheika needs to reteach the basics in his squad before injecting some of the Randwick flair.
Morgan Turinui thinks the players should pack up and leave if they can't accept the pressure and scrutiny that comes with being a Waratah, while Tim Gavin says nothing brings crowds through the gates like men ''having a real dig'' for their state.
All agree NSW has the talent to match it with the best in the world and Cheika is the state's best opportunity in years to make good on that unfulfilled promise. But it all starts with attitude.
''What the players will see from Michael is that he hates losing more than anyone, more than any other player, he just hates it,'' says Turinui, a former Waratahs and Wallabies centre who played under Cheika at Stade Francais last season.
''It's not a fear of losing, it's just a desire to win and be successful … hopefully the biggest thing he'll bring is that habit of success and that desire for it.''
BACK TO BASICS
Cheika has talked this week about balancing flair with ''a bit of dog'' and out of it fashioning a new Waratahs style. Jones says his Randwick stablemate should get his men fit first up.
''The evidence shows that they weren't [fit] and clearly Queensland and the Brumbies, in strength and conditioning, were well ahead of the other provinces,''
Ella agrees. The former Wallabies five-eighth, who played for Randwick and NSW, says Cheika needs to pare it back.
''While [the squad] might have made a large contribution to the Wallabies, our performances as Waratahs didn't reflect that, our skill level was poor,'' Ella says. ''One of the fundamentals of rugby, no matter the era, is to be able to catch, pass and run the right angles under pressure. If I was Michael Cheika I would go way back to basics and start all over again. Once he thinks they've got enough skills you can be a little more complicated in how you coach.''
Now coaching the Japanese national team, Jones says the Waratahs paid the price last season of not finding a quality halfback/five-eighth combination.
Cheika's predecessor, Michael Foley, was well aware of the issue and had earmarked Bernard Foley as a successor to Berrick Barnes in the No.10 jersey. Jones disagrees. ''[Foley] is an out and out 15 to me, he's an instinctive player, he's a runner of the ball, not a passer or an organiser,'' he says.
''Berrick is going to be the best 10 they've got, so they've got to settle on him and play him and give him a nine that wants to give him the ball quickly, not run it himself.''
Poidevin, a former Wallabies captain and Goulburn-raised Waratahs breakaway, was excited by Cheika's hard-nosed attitude at the announcement of his appointment and says it bodes well for the Waratahs.
''If you play for this team you're going to have to be tough, you're going to have to be resilient and you're going to have to train hard,'' he says.
''Players who think they can preserve their longevity by just ticking along are not going to work here … Michael Cheika's looking for fighters, not journeymen. I think you'll see fitness levels and mental toughness go to levels we haven't seen before at the Waratahs.''
Turinui knows the value of toughness - both mental and physical - to a Waratah. The 30-year-old played at outside centre in the 2005 team that lost to the Crusaders in the then Super 12 final.
His captain was Chris Whitaker and his teammates were an assortment of hard-heads, including Phil Waugh, Rocky Elsom, Brendan Cannon, Al Baxter, Justin Harrison, Dan Vickerman, Mat Rogers and Matt Dunning.
''The truth is, no other team is scrutinised like the Waratahs and if the players haven't accepted that then they'd better hurry up and do it because there's no point whinging about it,'' Turinui says.
''The good Waratahs teams are the teams that have the players that can cope with those external pressures and still perform on the field.
''You look at some of the players in the good times - times we made finals, times when we had 40,000 people at home games consistently - look at the strong characters they had.''
Strength comes from belief and passion. Poidevin has observed a disturbing shift in mentality at Moore Park.
''There's a bit of a worrying culture out there among some players that we jump from club or under-20s rugby straight into the Wallabies and bypass your state,'' he says. ''That's certainly not the mentality in Queensland. Queenslanders are proud to play for Queensland, more so sometimes than playing for Australia. We've got to get the same culture back into the Waratahs.''
Jones, a former Wallabies coach and Springboks technical coach, seizes on the regular selection of at least half a dozen Waratahs in Test squads and wonders where players' priorities lie.
''Do they want to play for the Waratahs first and then the Wallabies, or the other way around, do they want to be Wallabies and just fit the Waratahs in around that,'' he says. ''If they're like that they've got the wrong players and they might have to shift a few of them.''
HEARTS AND MINDS
Former Waratahs captain Tim Gavin, now the president of the NSW Rugby Union, believes if Cheika makes sure he has a squad full of Waratahs who want to be Waratahs, the crowds will return.
''[You win back supporters] by playing a standard of football you're proud of and playing it with the passion that is required to reach out to people,'' Gavin says. ''Supporters just like to see people having a real dig, that's what gets them through the gate.''
They're not coming at the moment, that's for sure. While the Reds can boast a championship, 30,000-plus members and the beginnings of Ewen McKenzie's empire, the Waratahs' battle for crowds and supporters is an oft-sung lament.
''They just seem so far removed from their fan base,'' Ella says. ''The pressure they were under didn't help them but they've got to re-engage with their fans because they're so far off it's harmful for the team.''
Turinui says Cheika is the man to turn the tide.
''He's big on 'what's rugby without emotion?', without that attachment to your supporter base,'' the 30-year-old says. ''And that's very much him, he's quite an emotional person … he's a good balance between the pre-professional era and the professional era.''
LET HIM AT IT
Jones saves his harshest critique for the Waratahs administration. He acknowledges the difficulties of running a team in a big city with three competing winter football codes. But if Cheika is to succeed, Jones says, the board and head office need to stay out of their star recruit's way. ''[The Waratahs] are one of the most dysfunctional franchises in the history of Super Rugby and that's the reality,'' Jones says.
''We're talking about not winning a competition with the most resources, the most money and the most talent, it's quite unbelievable. But they've made a good choice in Cheika and now they need to let him get on with it.''