RWC 2015: Australia look to be rebels with a cause

Walk-outs, sex scandals and indiscipline. Not long ago Australia’s rugby union squad were a lawless bunch apparently on the brink of falling apart. But now they are a match for any side at the World Cup – including England on Saturday. Hugh Godwin charts a remarkable transformation

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Kurtley Beale and Quade Cooper have attracted many detractors over the years, by running the gamut of misbehaviour from boozy nights out to possibly the most heinous crime in sport, Cooper’s public refusal to play for Australia unless the coaching regime was changed. “Toxic” was the word used by the fly-half when he rebelled against the former coach, Robbie Deans. Yet take a look at the Wallabies’ starting line-up for their game against Uruguay today and there they are, Beale and Cooper, side by side in the world’s number-two ranked team, sticking two fingers up to those who wrote them off as lost causes.

The words of Michael Lynagh, the normally mildly spoken former Australia great, before his country’s midweek win over Fiji, emphasised the extent of redemption under Michael Cheika, the coach appointed last autumn. “This time last year Australia were in disarray,” said Lynagh. “There were players under disciplinary action, no head coach, and the bankruptcy of the Australian Rugby Union on the doorstep. A year makes a huge difference.”

A new broadcasting deal took care of the money worries. As for the players, with Beale and Cooper restored, albeit not as first choices, Australia beat New Zealand and South Africa to win the shortened Rugby Championship in the summer and, after taking on the easy-beats of Uruguay at Villa Park this afternoon, they will move to the big one of their World Cup pool, against England at Twickenham on Saturday. Cooper has returned from the low ebb of autumn 2012 when he was fined Aus$40,000 (£18,500) plus Aus$ 20,000, suspended, and had his Test contract offer radically reduced, for his rant about Deans, the  New Zealander who took the Wallabies to third place in the last World Cup but was said by his critics  to be unable to control the team’s stronger personalities.

Beale’s case was different. After a drink-drive ban in 2007, he  was hit with successive fines and suspension from his club, Melbourne Rebels, in 2013 for fighting with team-mates and breaching an alcohol ban. In mid-2014, with 47 caps at that stage, he was dropped by the Wallabies after an ugly episode with a female Australian Rugby Union employee, Di Patston, who was given team-manager responsibilities by Deans’ successor Ewen McKenzie.Beale texted images of obese, naked women to team-mates and mistakenly to Patston. An apology from Beale to Patston, who later left the ARU, read: “I just do stupid things for no reason” – but team-mates stuck by him. McKenzie soon went too, allowing Cheika, the only coach to win the European Cup (with Leinster) and Super Rugby (with  the New South Wales Waratahs), to step in.

The Wallabies have been cosseted quietly in Bath in recent days, and in a mansion hotel with an imposing Georgian facade, Cheika and his vice-captain, Adam Ashley-Cooper,  told me how they had achieved a newly united front. “It’s the players’ honest conversations with each other that have proved to be the point of difference,” said Ashley-Cooper, whose 109 caps is the most won in the current squad and the fourth-highest haul of any Australian player. “I’ve dealt with Kurtley – he’s been my roomie for the last couple of years – and the way I have seen him grow as a player and as a person has been great. I am very proud of him, and I am sure he is proud of himself. The conversations might be harsh, they might be brutal, but Kurtley and Quade have overcome their stories and bought into the group rather than buying into their own future. That’s what’s helped them the most.”

Ashley-Cooper was speaking with a lump on the side of his head, not in his throat, from tackling a Fijian, not a small-hours falling-out with Beale, the super-talented utility back who set him up for two tries in the Waratahs’ 2014 Super Rugby final victory. “What I’ve learnt over my career,” said Ashley-Cooper, “is you can have the best players in the world but if you don’t have the right culture, the team’s not going anywhere. Your own worst enemy is yourself and what you experience between the ears. ‘Cheik’ has put a large emphasis on each individual believing in himself enough to know they can conquer any self-doubt and perform on the world stage.

“We’ve got our identity piece – a set of values the players created ourselves. It’s a lengthy document  but it’s spot on and it’s something solid that we can refer back to.  Rather than going out to win or lose – though obviously it’s important to win – we aim to play to our identity, to show the audience and the opposition who we are and what we believe in. We aim to play with  no fear, to not close up shop or  play a conservative game. It’s having that balance of being scared to  death of losing with being extremely confident.”

The Wallabies now have a team manager and logistics manager who are male. Nathan Grey and Stephen Larkham have brought an ex-Wallaby feel to the coaching panel. But it is Cheika, the former club No 8, with Randwick, who is the spiritual leader. “I wasn’t sure why the reputation was like it was, I just saw a very good bunch of lads,” Cheika said. “Honesty is the key. It’s not the old days of two nights of training and a coach ordering the players around. You must give sound reasons for making decisions or, if you’re making a decision based on your gut, tell them that.”

England have had players in similar trouble: Danny Care, Danny Cipriani and Manu Tuilagi among them; New Zealand, too. Is there no more room for the archetypal Aussie larrikin, who likes his beer, beach and Sheilas? “I’m not into all that ‘likes a beer’ business,” said Cheika. “I don’t see that as part of ‘character’ – liking a beer is just a social thing you do. Character is the person’s true way of holding himself. And the best team is made up of all the different characters: the joker, the lover, the fighter, the quiet guy. When we select players, character is a big part of how we do it.” 

This brings to mind another bona fide “bad boy”, James O’Connor, who was dropped by McKenzie in September 2013 for turning up for a team flight drunk and has never been capped again. “There are players of character in the team who may not be as skilful as some other guys who could have got selected,” Cheika said. “It’s too easy nowadays with all the information we have to pick using numbers. They’re important but it’s got to be laced with having good  people. I really love the guys here, to be honest. I am asking them to do lots of stuff and their humility and honesty has made me feel like that about them.”

But there is fire in Cheika’s belly; this coach with the boldest of game plans, based around two openside flankers, David Pocock and Michael Hooper, has had a touchline ban and fines for verbal abuse. While at Stade Français, his displeasure with the referee, George Clancy, over the last scrum of the 2011 European Challenge Cup against Harlequins ended with a note pushed under the official’s door that read “seeing as you’re too frightened to see me, why did you make the half-back use the ball?” (Clancy, by the way, will be a tough judge next Saturday.)

“I don’t even know what happened to those guys [Beale and Cooper],” said Cheika. “Just like they wouldn’t come at me and talk about how, maybe, I screamed at my kids one day. What I’ve done is treated them like men. Maybe that’s not the modern way – don’t cross the road here, stop for 20 seconds there – but that’s the way I believe we can get something out of our lives. 

“You can’t be doing this for the dollar, mate. Yeah, it’s nice to get paid, but if you want to be successful, you’ve got to be doing it for a greater cause.”

And how about a drinking curfew? “There’s no rules,” said Cheika, “but performance is king, so if you do something that hinders that, you’ll pay the penalty. We want to leave a legacy for who’s going to play in the Wallabies next year and in 20 years’ time – the kids who are watching at home now.”