Cheika watches as brave Tahs lose to 13-man Brumbies
Former title-winning coach Michael Cheika was a conspicuous observer as the Waratahs’ record losing streak continued with a gut-wrenching 24-22 Super Rugby AU defeat to the Brumbies in Sydney.
The Waratahs’ sharp-shooting flyhalf Will Harrison had an after-the-siren conversion chance to send Friday’s match into extra time, but pushed his sideline attempt wide.
In a chaotic conclusion to the game, it was only Harrison’s third missed shot at goal all campaign.
The Waratahs’ record-extending sixth successive defeat to start the season came less than a week after the NSW board sacked Rob Penney and installed his assistants Chris Whitaker and Jason Gilmore as interim coaches.
Cheika is said to be advising the Waratahs on the structure of the embattled franchise’s long-term coaching set-up.
Whether or not he’d be interested – or affordable to the Waratahs – to consider a return in any official capacity is another matter.
But his appearance at the SCG – alongside Sydney Roosters NRL coach Trent Robinson – certainly raised the tantalising prospect.
Cheika is the only coach ever to lead NSW to a Super Rugby title, masterminding the Waratahs’ 2014 breakthrough before leaving the following year to take charge of the Wallabies.
He guided Australia to the 2015 World Cup final to further raise his stocks before quitting after the Wallabies’ disappointing quarterfinal exit at the 2019 global showpiece in Japan.
The one-time World Rugby coach of the year was on the Roosters’ books last year before agreeing to take the helm of Lebanon for the 2021 Rugby League World Cup.
It’s doubtful the cash-strapped Waratahs would have the resources to entice Cheika back.
But if there’s one man who could put bums back on seats, restore the Waratahs’ reputation and profile and lure some big-name players back to Sydney, it is the master motivator and mover and shaker Cheika.
The Tahs’ inexperienced class of 2021 look in serious need of a shake-up from whoever is appointed as Penney’s full-time successor.
Try as they might after a less-than-ideal four-day preparation, Whitaker and Gilmore were unable to find the magic formula for a drought-breaking and desperately-needed Waratahs win over the defending champion Brumbies.
They were at least courageous and competitive but ultimately paid the price for conceding two soft early tries, to Tom Banks and returning Wallaby Tom Wright, and then trailing 10-24 at half-time.
They briefly levelled the match at 10-all through a 21st-minute try to Harry Johnson-Holmes and a conversion and penalty to Harrison.
But weak defence once again let the Waratahs down and only Noah Lolesio’s errant goal-kicking kept the home team within striking distance after Andy Muirhead and Folau Fainga’a also crossed in the first half to give the Brumbies their 14-point lead at the interval.
The Waratahs made the Brumbies sweat, though, reducing the deficit to seven points with a Harrison converted try in the 65th minute, then almost forcing “super time” with a James Ramm five-pointer in the 83rd minute.
But even after playing most of the second half with a man down after a yellow card was issued to Rory Scott and a red to Tom Cusack, the Brumbies still hung on.
For the Waratahs
Tries: Johnson-Holmes, Harrison, Ramm
Cons: Harrison 2
For the Brumbies
Tries: Fainga’a, Muirhead, Wright, Banks
Cons: Lolesio 2
Red card: Tom Cusack (Brumbies, 80 – two yellow cards)
Yellow cards: Tom Cusack (Brumbies, 46 – repeated infringements, off his feet at the breakdown and 80 – cynical foul, slapping the ball out of scrumhalf’s hand), Rory Scott (Brumbies, 74 repeated infringements)
Waratahs: 15 Jack Maddocks, 14 Alex Newsome, 13 Izaia Perese, 12 Lalakai Foketi, 11 James Ramm, 10 Will Harrison, 9 Jake Gordon (captain), 8 Will Harris, 7 Carlo Tizzano, 6 Hugh Sinclair, 5 Max Douglas, 4 Jeremy Williams, 3 Harry Johnson-Holmes, 2 David Porecki, 1 Angus Bell.
Replacements: 16 Tom Horton, 17 Te Tera Faulkner, 18 Darcy Breen, 19 Michael Wood, 20 Charlie Gamble, 21 Jack Grant, 22 Tane Edmed, 23 Mark Nawaqanitawase.
Brumbies: 15 Tom Banks, 14 Tom Wright, 13 Len Ikitau, 12 Irae Simone, 11 Andy Muirhead, 10 Noah Lolesio, 9 Nic White (captain), 8 Pete Samu, 7 Tom Cusack, 6 Rob Valetini, 5 Cadeyrn Neville, 4 Nick Frost, 3 James Slipper, 2 Folau Fainga’a, 1 Harry Lloyd.
Replacements: 16 Lachlan Lonergan, 17 Fred Kaihea, 18 Sefo Kautai, 19 James Tucker, 20 Rory Scott, 21 Ryan Lonergan, 22 Bayley Kuenzle, 23 Mack Hansen.
Referee Graham Cooper