Former Wallabies head coach Michael Cheika has responded to scathing criticism of the 2019 Rugby World Cup campaign from selector Michael O’Connor.
O’Connor was brought in as a Wallabies selector at the start of 2019 and was part of a three-man panel, along with Scott Johnson and Cheika, during the national season last year.
It was a move that didn’t sit well with Cheika, who said in an interview with the Times earlier this year that he should have left the job in 2018 when the structure was changed and Johnson was brought in as director of rugby.
O’Connor, who represented Australia at rugby union and rugby league, was open with his views on team selection from the outset, including suggesting in February 2019 that Wallabies skipper Michael Hooper could be deployed off the bench with David Pocock the starting openside flanker, something that is understood to have ruffled feathers early within the national staff.
Despite initial plans for O’Connor to remain in 2020, he is moving on this year with his position cut as part of wider organisation cost-cutting that has seen 47 full-time Rugby Australia staff and 30 contractors let go.
Wallabies teams could still be decided by a selection committee this year and beyond but the specifics of that are yet to be determined.
In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald on Thursday, O’Connor was brutal in his assessment of Cheika and the Wallabies’ approach to the Rugby World Cup campaign, saying it was ‘only ever going to end in tears’.
Australia had a lean record under Cheika and exited the World Cup in disappointing fashion against England, going down 40-16 in their quarter-final last October.
Cheika said he was disappointed by the fact that O’Connor was airing his grievances so publicly months after the tournament wrapped up.
“Being a selector for Australia is a prestigious position,” he told Rugby Australia’s official website.
“I think it shows the disregard for it when that person’s talking like that about stuff that’s close to the team and is not really qualified to make those comments.”
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O’Connor told the Sydney Morning Herald that he felt Cheika was cagey in discussing his plans for the team’s approach, something the former coach was quick to dismiss.
“I don’t know what he bases that on,” said Cheika.
“The discussions that you have with selectors are about selection.
“I sat down and spoke to both selectors exactly about how we were playing the game so they could have an understanding about selecting teams and nothing was ever brought up at that discussion.
“He certainly didn’t not understand the tactics or the plan when we beat the All Blacks by a record score in August, it was never mentioned then.”
O’Connor was especially critical of errors made at training and said players were dropping the ball a “disturbing” amount in sessions and had voiced their own reservations about the Wallabies’ approach but were not willing to speak up about their concerns.
Cheika said he felt that O’Connor’s role as a selector meant he only saw part of the picture when it came to the team.
“His attendance at training, different days and different times, could’ve totalled maybe four or three weeks overall,” he added.
“So much happens in there, discussions and meetings happen at different times.
“He’s not to be privy to any of those, that’s just maintaining the boundaries of what you’re supposed to do in that role.”
Cheika has done few interviews with the Australian press since leaving his role as Wallabies coach last year but said he felt he needed to speak up in the wake of O’Connor’s comments.
“Since the whole thing (the World Cup) finished, I spoke at the end of the tournament and I did one interview in the Times, where I spoke about my accountability, I’ve not slagged anyone, not spoken poorly of any other person inside the organisation and I don’t want to,” he said.
“At a certain point sometimes where the line is crossed on what the truth is you have to stand up and say, ‘This is not right and that person shouldn’t be talking like that’.
“This concept that I could dominate the selection process is totally ridiculous, it was a vote of three every time.”