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‘Always going to end in tears’: O’Connor says Cheika’s Wallabies were doomed to fail at World Cup

O’Connor said he felt uneasy about the situation.

“Raelene was just hell-bent on trying to rein in Michael Cheika … and that was always going to be difficult,” he said. “He’s a particular sort of person, very strong-willed, so that was not easy. Michael wasn’t appointed by her. It was a difficult, awkward situation.”

Wallabies coach Michael Cheika speaks to his players at a camp in Brisbane in 2019.

Wallabies coach Michael Cheika speaks to his players at a camp in Brisbane in 2019. Credit:Rugby AU Media/Stu Walmsley

At the selection table throughout 2019, there was debate about the Wallabies’ best side. Yet despite what O’Connor and Johnson thought, Cheika ruled with an iron fist and mostly got his way, particularly at the World Cup with a few obvious coach’s calls.

“I certainly sensed that he would rather have flown solo on selections,” O’Connor said. “A lot of coaches are that way and they like to take responsibility. He more or less got what he wanted.

“He was very loyal to players that delivered in the past in Super 15 and the [2015] World Cup. He wanted to take responsibility for the selections, so it was a bit awkward.”

In a recent podcast, Kurtley Beale said he felt Australia were “really hindered” by the constant chopping and changing of teams throughout 2019 and at the World Cup.

Cheika said it would create healthy competition but O’Connor knew it meant combinations would be raw at rugby’s showpiece tournament. However, O’Connor put the heat on Australia’s senior players, saying there was a lack of leadership on speaking up.

“Kurtley is right, you build strong combinations and you’ve got to stick with them in my opinion … but the players have got to take some responsibility too with Michael Cheika,” O’Connor said. “They should have voiced those concerns to the coach.

“It was brought up quietly [to me] by a few players that the high-risk strategy [wasn’t working] but they weren’t strong enough to go to the coach and say ‘hey listen, we disagree’. Somebody needed to stand up. We had some reasonably strong personalities but we didn’t have a strong enough group. They didn’t challenge Michael and the style of footy they were asked to play. There were players in the team that weren’t sold on it.

“It was one of the failings from that campaign; players who clearly weren’t sold on the style of play either didn’t voice their concern or were afraid of ramifications.”

O’Connor told the players he was a selector and had no say on strategy. Watching training behind closed doors, he was flabbergasted.

“I’ve never ever seen as much dropped ball from a national team. That was disturbing,” he said. “If you’re going to drop it training, you’re going to drop it in a game – and it [happened].

“Situations where you’ve got Sekope Kepu trying to tip on balls in midfield like he’s Mark Ella, front-rowers playing like centres when they should be hitting the ball up … you train the way you play.”

O’Connor eventually asked Cheika about the supposed ‘secret’ game plan he had up his sleeve.

“When you look back on it: what was it?” O’Connor said. “That new attacking style he was going to bring to the Wallabies; it was so secretive and he had to play players out of Super commitments and fly them to Brisbane and educate them. I don’t know. It was almost like a scam.

“I always thought with me he was holding back. I always asked what the new style of play was and he told me. I thought there has got to be more than that. I always thought he had something in reserve and he was being very cagey. That’s fine. But he didn’t. It was always going to end in tears.

“It’s water under the bridge. We’ve got to move on from [Cheika] and he keeps getting air. I am very bullish about the future and given what we’ve come through.”

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O’Connor did not want to discuss the fact that Castle felt compelled to apologise to World Cup organisers for the behaviour of Wallabies staff members, in particular Cheika.

With new Wallabies coach Dave Rennie starting next month and a high turnover of players at the top level, O’Connor believes Australia could be on the cusp of a golden era.

“We’ve got some real young genuine talent and I’d be very optimistic about our chances for the next World Cup,” he said. “We’ve got some really good young players coming through – potentially world-class players – and we didn’t have enough of them over the last decade.

“I think we are really on the cusp of another really good era in Australia. We’re getting good coaches in Dan McKellar and Brad Thorn coming on. We’ve brought some good coaches to Australia, the rule changes are good for the game too. There’s a lot of positives.”

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