Outgoing Wallabies selector Michael O’Connor has suggested that Australia’s poor 2019 World Cup campaign was in part due to the players not standing up to coach Michael Cheika’s authoritarianism.
In an exclusive interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, O’Connor, who represented the Wallabies and Kangaroos, voiced his frustration at Australia’s capitulation at the World Cup in Japan, where they lost to Wales in the pool stages before being thumped by England 40-16 in the quarter-finals.
In the wake of the Wallabies’ RWC elimination, Cheika resigned and has recently admitted he should have walked away a year earlier – at the end of the 2018 season.
O’Connor has hinted that he would have preferred it had Cheika resigned in 2019, because throughout the 2019 season leading up to the World Cup, the selection processes were tumultuous, awkward and uneasy.
‘Michael’s a particular sort of person, very strong-willed, so that was not easy. It was a difficult, awkward situation. I certainly sensed that he would rather have flown solo on selections. He more or less got what he wanted,’ O’Connor said.
‘He was very loyal to players that delivered in the past in Super 15 and the  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. But O’Connor believes that is on Australia’s senior players, saying there was a lack of leadership in 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. 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. 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 said when he confronted Cheika, the coach told him it was a ‘secret’ game plan he had up his sleeve.
‘When you look back on it: what was it?’ O’Connor asked. ‘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.’
Photo: Wallabies website