AUSTRALIA coach Michael Cheika says the red-carding of tight-head prop Sekope Kepu just before half-time of yesterday’s match at BT Murrayfield was not the decisive factor in his team’s 53-25 humbling at the hands of Scotland.
“I don’t think it was the story of the game. I thought we still could have won with 14, to be honest. We came back and started off the second half very well. We just had to keep believing in what we wanted to do, and instead we threw away the ball,” said the under-fire coach.
“We had less players and if you throw away the ball that’s what is going to happen. So, it’s unfortunate – but definitely not the red card, that happens in matches sometimes, so I don’t think it was a turning point.”
Cheika added that he had no complaint about the decision although he did argue that the player had not intended to make contact with Hamish Watson’s head when shoulder charging into a tackle area.
“The referee really didn’t have much alternative. But just from the point of view of Kepu: he had no intent to take the player in the head. If you watch, the player’s back leg slips underneath him so he goes lower than where Kepu is aiming,” he argued.
“So that’s where the contact was made but there is no intent for Kepu to go there, and I think that’s seen by the fact that the player doesn’t even go to the HIA – it’s not a strong hit, he gets up and keeps playing. But I don’t think there’s any complaints.”
This is a slightly flimsy argument. If there was no intent to make contact with Watson’s head then the challenge was certainly reckless in the extreme. Watson was in the process of a tackle assist so Kepu could only guess at what height his head was going to end up and the prop launched himself off his feet at the contact area, led solely with shoulder and made absolutely not attempt to wrap his arm around the intended target.
“You are able to play with 14 players. It’s not ideal, obviously – and especially when you’ve got a debutant on the bench who probably got in the game a little bit earlier than I wanted him to,” Cheika added. “But once he got his head around the first scrum I thought he did really quite well.”
“We talked about a few changes we wanted to make at half-time to stay in the battle; but if you look at the tries, we gave stupid balls away. We threw one ball on the ground when we were making a break and could have gone in front. We didn’t have that discipline to understand that this is something we will have to execute by going through phases after phase to put the opposition under pressure because at that point they are expected to win because we’ve got 14.
“We tried to go win the game instead of stay in it and see what happens. The quick tap [from Fin Russell which led to Huw Jones’ try] and things like that – real signs of knocking off. I don’t see the red card as an excuse for losing the game.”
There is some murmurings in Australia that Cheika’s coat might be on a shaky peg and this result will fanned the flames of doubt about the direction the side is headed under his tutelage.
This was Australia’s worst defeat in 118 years to a northern hemisphere side and the third most points the team has conceded in history. In 90 years of matches against Scotland, never before have the Wallabies lost by such a margin.
“We just need to take that little bit extra step in maturity. We did a lot of good things this season, despite what some of you guys [in the Australian press] think, and I’m really proud of the team – although it didn’t go well today – and everything around the team: the staff, the people involved, the attitude and the way that the team represents Australia when it travels,” said Cheika.
“We’re over here without 10 or 12 guys who could be in the mix for this squad. Over the last two years we’ve looked to build depth in our squad which we felt we didn’t have. I think we had our 27th debutant since the World Cup in this game, and a lot of those guys are still in or around this squad so maybe we are a little bit too young at the moment, but that will tell for us later on.”
“The big thing for us is to try and improve our mind-set, to get away from not fully believing in ourselves that we can go out and do the job no matter the conditions. I think we’ve worked really well and not made excuses for ourselves, we’ve taken the hard road all year and that will come back and tell for us for sure.”
It is astonishing that Cheika’s position could be under any sort of scrutiny at this stage, halfway through a World Cup cycle and just five weeks after his team – which is ranked third in the world – inflicted a bloody nose on the All Blacks. The Wallabies also came within a last-gasp Beauden Barrett try of defeating New Zealand on their own patch earlier in the season.
Consistency is an issue, but as we know only too well in Scotland, that is an inevitable by-product of having a squad which is being forced to grow up on the biggest stage of all.
Surely a coach who answered an SOS call for his country when Ewen McKenzie resigned from the job just 11 months before the 2015 World Cup, and then led the team to the final of that tournament in England, should be given full backing with his squad construction programme through to Japan 2019.