Rob Penney can try all he likes, but only one man can turn the Waratahs’ fortunes around quickly: Michael Cheika.
Eight years ago Cheika, who didn’t seek reappointment following the Wallabies’ quarter-final exit after the 2019 World Cup, transformed the Waratahs from perennial underachievers into champions in his second year in charge.
He joined the Wallabies full-time a year later and since he left the Waratahs have cliff-dived.
On Friday, a fortnight after record defeats to the Reds and Brumbies, the Waratahs slumped to another low as they lost to the Force.
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The match was an edgy, close and, at times, absorbing clash, but it was a match played between a side that didn’t know how to win and another that was without confidence and experience to get the job done either.
As much as Penney, who is in his second season at the franchise, was sold a dead horse by the mismanagement of the previous Waratahs administration – some who still remain – the New Zealander is all but on borrowed time.
It might not be his fault, but it’s unlikely the ship can be turned, at least at any great knots, under him.
Winning is the only currency in sport and after a difficult 2020, which followed four largely forgettable years under Daryl Gibson, the Waratahs appear destined to finish last on the Super Rugby AU standings and face the distinct possibility of failing to win a match in 2021.
If that happens, Penney, even if there is a plan, can’t stay in the role beyond 2021.
The Waratahs – representing the biggest sports market and constituting the greatest population in Australia – can’t sit idly by despite Penney being contracted until the end of 2022.
Fans have already switched off and they will continue to do so if the message doesn’t change.
As Penney said on being announced head coach on October 1, 2019, at a hotel in Tokyo, Waratahs fans have been “crying out for success.”
Unfortunately, only pain – and it can’t be put down simply because of Covid – has followed.
He added, too, that the Waratahs needed to find a tight-head prop, big ball-carrying forward and a tackle-busting outside back to make inroads.
“They would be the three areas in the short term that I would say need to be filled to allow this group to fulfil its potential early on,” Penney said, sitting next to compatriot and then-NSW CEO Andrew Hore.
“If those vulnerabilities aren’t covered then there’s a potential for what’s happened in the last couple of years to occur again.”
Again, unfortunately those additions haven’t been discovered nor brought in.
And therein lies the problem.
The Waratahs and Australian rugby simply don’t have money to attract players financially motivated.
So to do that, they need two things.
A deep understanding of the grassroots in Australia and of competitions such as the Shute Shield.
But they also need to be able to attract people through the vision they have for the team and, in this case, the state.
That, it seems, Penney is struggling to share and convince others of because it’s been reported Izack Rodda is set to overlook the Waratahs for another Australian Super Rugby side despite the experienced Wallaby emanating from NSW and a respectable offer being put in front of him.
Player agents know what they will get from the Brumbies. A proven, quality and winning program that prepares players for Test rugby. That’s why they’re advising their players not to go to the Waratahs. There’s a lack of trust and belief of what’s happening in NSW.
After six years of having a New Zealand coach, with a Kiwi serving as the Wallabies coach, and two foreigners at two of the four other franchises, the Waratahs need an Australian and, ideally, a New South Walesman back in charge.
Cheika can do that.
Few others, who have a proven record in Australia, can.
So why would Cheika do it, you ask?
Isn’t it, as one recently moved on Waratah told foxsports.com.au, a three to four-year rebuilding fix?
Why would Cheika further risk damaging his credentials?
Cheika won it in his second year in charge of the Waratahs and he can do it again.
But what’s in it for him? Been there, done that, some might say.
The Wallabies dream.
Cheika still has ambitions of coaching the Wallabies again.
As one source who knows Cheika well told foxsports.com.au recently, “it’s a fact he wants to coach the Wallabies again.”
He was shattered at how it ended in 2019.
In hindsight, Cheika would have resigned as soon as Scott Johnson was appointed as Rugby Australia director of rugby – a role that diminished his powers and influence, and brought his authority into question.
But he won’t get anywhere near that role again – to make things right – unless he wins.
Turning the Waratahs around and bringing the NSW public with him on the journey would go a long way in swaying the mood.
Without the public on board, he won’t get near the job.
While Cheika has many detractors, he is still revered by many that played under him. After all, he did what no other Waratahs coach, including Bob Dwyer and Ewen McKenzie, could by winning the Super Rugby competition against a Crusaders outfit that included Richie McCaw and Dan Carter.
Helping Argentina to their maiden win over the All Blacks and securing two draws against the Wallabies during last year’s Tri Nations did plenty to bolster his credentials too.
The current Waratahs assistant attack coach, Chris Whitaker, played under Cheika at Leinster and both he and fellow Wallabies great Matt Cockbain, as well as Jason Gilmore, could benefit by having Cheika’s head coaching experience to learn from.
The playing group at the Waratahs is a new one too. The banging of the drum, at least the golf club, would be new to them.
Michael Hooper – the returning Wallabies skipper – is one of Cheika’s closest confidants.
It’s important to remember too, Cheika recognises the importance of older heads – something the Waratahs currently have inexplicably forgotten.
When he arrived at Moore Park in 2013 he brought in Stephen Hoiles and Mitch Chapman, he had Dave Dennis as his skipper, people with years of experience and rugby nous. They were the first to leave the Waratahs when Cheika departed
The Waratahs have lost its sense of what rugby nous is.
It’s hardly a surprise that Dave Porecki, who made his name at Manly before going on to captain London Irish, has been the Waratahs’ shining light since returning to Australian rugby.
But he didn’t return to Australia because of Penney. He did because Johnson recognised his excellence in the English Premiership and set about finding him a franchise.
Cheika can attract players.
He did so in the past, bringing Wallabies like Israel Folau and Kurtley Beale, as well as South African Jacques Potgieter, to the Waratahs and he can do so again.
Australian rugby has a history of burning its coaches in the past.
Ewen McKenzie didn’t feel supported and hasn’t returned. Ditto Michael Foley.
Eddie Jones’ rugby intellect has been lost to Australian rugby for more than a decade.
But Australian rugby can benefit from having someone of Cheika’s experience back in the game.
Dwyer was replaced by Alan Jones in 1983 only to return five years later and lead the Wallabies to World Cup glory in 1991.
Robert Menzies lost the Australian Prime Ministership in 1941 and then held office for 17 years with his second stint.
John Howard too succeeded in his second stint as the Coalition leader.
History is full of people succeeding when given a second crack.
Cheika might have struggled in the second half of his Wallabies tenure.
Super Rugby is another kettle of fish though.
It’s looser, defences aren’t as strong and Cheika’s methods of holding onto the ball are more suited. Undoubtedly his period out of the game, where he’s assisted the Sydney Roosters and Los Pumas, will have broadened his horizons.
More than anything though, Cheika can get his mitts on a squad for eight months and not just for short tours where he’s not in control of players’ habits.
Cheika lives for challenges.
If nothing else, NSW Rugby – once they sort out their boardroom mess – should be picking up the phone.