OITA, Japan (AP) — Michael Cheika didn’t take too kindly to the question, although he must have known it was coming.
What, the Australia coach was asked, were his future plans now his team had been ushered through the exit door at the Rugby World Cup by England in unceremonious fashion?
“I will be honest,” Cheika said, “it is a cruel, cruel world nowadays when you are asking that question two minutes after we’ve been knocked out of the World Cup.
“If you could find it inside you to find a little bit of compassion for people who are hurting.”
A strapping No. 8 in his playing days and a no-nonsense, uncompromising coach now, Cheika got emotional as he delivered his verdict on Australia’s 40-16 loss in the quarterfinals in Oita on Saturday.
“I feel that weight,” he said, pausing briefly during his message to the Australian public, “I should have delivered for them.”
They might be some of Cheika’s last words as coach of the Wallabies. And if they are, it was a tough way to go.
The Australians were handed a lesson in how to defend by England in a record-tying loss to their bitter rival. Prop Kyle Sinckler was able to carve through a yawning gap in the Wallabies’ defensive line for England’s third try, and his first at international level.
Then there was the Australian attack that was often poorly executed and at times overambitious. Kurtley Beale attempted a chip kick from deep inside his own 22 in the first half that was gathered up by England winger Jonny May, who went hunting for his third try of the match.
Two of England’s four tries came from interceptions. Australia also turned down a kick at goal from in front of the posts in the 56th minute in favor of an attacking scrum, even though the score was only 27-16 to England at that point.
“That is the way we play footy,” Cheika said. “I am not going to a kick-and-defend game. Call me naive but that’s not what I am doing. I would rather win playing our way, that’s the way Aussies want us to play.”
It has been a turbulent five years under Cheika, who got the Wallabies to a World Cup final in 2015 — defying most people’s pre-tournament predictions — but has seen his team fail to kick on since then.
Australia has only been good in patches in this World Cup cycle, one of its most notable wins being that 47-26 thrashing of New Zealand in August when it scored six tries to run up the highest tally of points in 165 tests against the All Blacks.
New Zealand might have been playing with only 14 men for the second half that game but it highlighted Australia’s potential that just wasn’t realized at the World Cup in Japan.
“We have come to the tournament and played, over the last two years, our best rugby,” Cheika said.
“You could say it came down to a few key moments. Everything was pretty tight.”
Yet the story of the World Cup doesn’t exactly make pretty reading for Cheika and the Wallabies, who were trailing to Fiji at halftime in their pool opener before eventually winning 39-21 and then lost 29-25 to Wales. After perfunctory victories over Uruguay and Georgia, Australia was overwhelmed by England in the quarterfinals.
“I am gutted, absolutely gutted,” Australia captain Michael Hooper said. “There are a lot of players who won’t get another chance at a World Cup and some guys have done a lot of work to get into this squad.
“I certainly feel that weight as well of not being able to get our team across the line.”
While Hooper will be back for Australia, the same cannot be said of Cheika, who staked his job on the World Cup in Japan and said this year he would walk if he didn’t win it.
“When the time comes, I’ll tell them,” Cheika said, pressed again about his future as Australia coach. “They don’t need to know today.”
It seems, though, a matter of when, not if, Cheika departs.
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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80