Former Wallabies coach Michael Cheika has returned home as the fallout from his strained relationship with Rugby Australia boss Raelene Castle deepens.
He was greeted by a media scrum when he touched down in Sydney on Tuesday, less than 48 hours after he stepped down as Wallabies coach in the wake of their disappointing World Cup campaign in Japan.
Cheika made a startling admission after Saturday night’s quarter final exit against England when he declared he had ‘no relationship’ with Castle or Rugby Australia chairman Cameron Clyne.
Wallabies captain Michael Hooper paid tribute to Cheika and insisted he and his teammates were unaware of tensions between their coach and the board.
Bitter fallout: Wallabies coach Michael Cheika has been slammed for his tactics at the Rugby World Cup, but players have rallied around him as criticism continues to mount
‘Cheik’s been amazing. I owe that man a lot,’ Hooper told reporters as he arrived in Sydney.
‘The passion that he represented us for, he stood up for us all the time and just genuinely wanted the best for Australian rugby.
‘Not just for him, not just for the team, selfishly, being the coach of the team – he just wanted the best for Australian rugby after he’s long gone.’
But even he concede a new face at the helm is desperately needed.
‘He wanted to leave something positive and he will, certainly with me,’ Hooper said.
‘[But] we want Australian rugby to be strong and be great and we haven’t been able to do that unfortunately.
‘There is a lot of young, talented guys and very hungry guys who want to be part of that change that has to be made and that’s exciting.
Wallabies captain Michael Hooper (pictured) said he ‘owed a lot’ to Cheika
As Castle broke her silence on her strained relationship with Cheika with Fox Sports, Hooper says the team was none the wiser.
‘I know that relationships aren’t always straightforward,’ Hooper said.
‘But whatever they did, they kept it pretty well hidden from us players.
Hooper’s comments come after former Rugby Australia chief executive John O’Neill described the current state of affairs as a ‘historical low point’.
He fears another World Cup disappointment in four years time unless a ‘root and branch’ review is conducted.
O’Neill, who was at the helm when the Wallabies last won the World Cup two decades ago said the buck stopped with Castle and the board for keeping Cheika in the top job this year, despite four wins from 13 Tests in 2018.
‘People with experience in this space know it’s a collective responsibility and thus the accountability is shared widely,’ O’Neill told Sydney Morning Herald.
He described Cheika’s claims of a non existent relationship with Castle as disturbing.
‘The head coach can’t ever be untouchable or unchallenged. The chief executive is the one who has the job of managing the coach,’ O’Neill added.
He urged Rugby Australia to conduct a ‘root and branch’ review, along with a transparent process with an extended timeframe beyond Christmas, given Australia’s next Test isn’t until midway next year.
‘There are no easy choices here but more of the same is not an option. Where do we want to be in 2023? Ranked No.6, No.12 or No.1? It’s an easy answer,’ O’Neill said.
Meanwhile, Castle has broken her silence about her strained relationship with Cheika in a Fox Sports interview on Monday night.
‘I think it surprised me,’ Çastle said when asked about Cheika’s bombshell claims.
‘At the end of the day, the CEO-coach relationships are never straightforward. Having gone through a number of them myself, you understand the ups and downs.’
Castle defended the restructure put in place earlier this year and appointment of director Scott Johnson to oversee the coaching role that ultimately led to Cheika’s resignation.
Former Australian Rugby Union boss John O’Neill described Cheika’s claims as disturbing
‘If you look at the results we’d had previous to that, there was a situation where a 50 per cent win rate for the Wallabies was not acceptable and we had to have a look and see what it is that we could do, considering that we’d appointed two previous Wallabies coaches in a crisis situation,’ she said.
‘We wanted to make sure that we had time that we could go through a process. The changes that we made were about setting us up for the longer term and now we have an opportunity with Michael not being reappointed to go through a process of appointment and through a proper process.’