WALLABIES coach Michael Cheika is hopeful that a more intense training program at Super Rugby level will be the catalyst for an Australian resurrection in 2018.
Australian rugby endured one of its worst seasons on record last year, as the Wallabies and its five Super Rugby sides failed to make an impression.
The Wallabies won just seven of 14 matches, while the Brumbies — thanks to a generous finals format — were Australia’s only representative in the Super Rugby playoffs.
Cheika, as well as then Test captain Stephen Moore, laid the blame squarely on Australia’s inadequate fitness levels for their disappointing results throughout the year.
“We spoke about it at the coaches meeting and we spoke about it in general that we need to lift the standard of our fitness level across the board — from the start of Super Rugby right through to us as well,” said Cheika, following the Wallabies’ underwhelming June series against Fiji, Scotland and Italy.
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Although the Wallabies managed to gain some much needed respect and credibility with a morale boosting win over the All Blacks in October, ultimately the year ended on a sour note as they crashed to embarrassing record defeats against England and Scotland on their end of year tour.
Reflecting on a tough 2017 — which included the messy culling of the Western Force — Cheika said that the Wallabies ran out of steam after playing catch-up all season and that Australia’s Super Rugby squads needed to be fitter from the outset.
“There’s a part of me that looks at the journey as a whole and we were in a hole a few times and got ourselves out,” Cheika said.
“We’ve had a pretty common theme, if you look at ‘16 and ‘17, our season started slow, we’ve had to get everyone’s head and body right coming out of Super (Rugby), June and then we started building ourselves up and then maybe ran out of a bit of mental steam towards the end because we put so much (fitness work) into the middle.
“By attacking earlier, some of the more physical elements, will allow us to give us some more even distribution of our energy as we head into June and then of course into the Rugby Championship and northern tour.
“From our (the Wallabies) perspective — we look at it pretty simply — we’re looking to get that middle section from where we’re performing well and extend it out a little bit.”
While previously Australia’s Super Rugby franchises have been left to their own devices, Australian rugby under Cheika is now moving towards to a more centralised model where everything, and everyone, is working for the greater good — i.e. the Wallabies.
For example, all of Australia’s top professional coaches and high performance staff came together — for the first time ever — last October for a two-day summit of idea sharing.
The early indications coming out from the summit are positive, with career best fitness test results recorded throughout the pre-season from Test stars such as Kurtley Beale and Israel Folau.
On the eve of the Super Rugby season — which gets underway from an Australian perspective on February 23 with the Rebels hosting the Reds — Cheika praised the efforts of the four franchises for embracing the mantra of working for the greater good.
“Towards the end of last year we got together with the Super Rugby clubs and really nutted out a bit of a strategy forward for all of us” Cheika said.
“It’s not perfect, but I think we’ve made a big advance on last year and I want to recognise those guys early on because they’ve made some sacrifices as well, which I’d like to think will bring them benefits in the long run as well.”
It’s expected that Australia’s four franchises will fare better in 2018 following the culling of the Force, which has condensed the playing talent.
The Wallabies, too, will be boosted in 2018 with assistants Stephen Larkham and Nathan Grey joining on a full-time basis after previously combining the role with their Super Rugby responsibilities.
With the World Cup just 18 months away, Cheika’s men will get another excellent opportunity to test themselves against one of the world’s best rugby nations with Ireland to play the Wallabies in three internationals in June.
Cheika will make his way north to Europe and the UK to watch the climax of the northern hemisphere’s Six Nations next month, which ends with favourites England hosting the Irish.
Meanwhile, in a continuation of his studies at Stanford Business School last year, Cheika recently returned from a coaching seminar in Minneapolis hosted by the Minnesota Vikings.
Cheika was one of a handful of Australian coaches invited, along with AFL coaches Alastair Clarkson and Chris Scott, and mixed with coaches from around the world including England football manager Gareth Southgate.
The seminars focused on leadership, preparation and performance.
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