The NSW Waratahs are rallying around besieged coach Michael Cheika as they steel themselves for their most important match of the Super Rugby season.
The one-time competition leaders and title favourites will tumble outside the top six for the first time all campaign with a loss to the Hurricanes on Saturday night, while the misbehaving Cheika faces a lengthy suspension if he slips up again.
SANZAR judicial officer Nigel Hampton QC this week hit Cheika with a suspended six-month ban from the game and ordered him to pay $6000 in costs after finding the hot-tempered coach guilty of verbally abusing a cameraman in South Africa.
Cheika had until Thursday night to appeal, but is understood to have decided against it and will cop his punishment.
While he lays low and refuses to discuss the matter publicly, assistant coach Daryl Gibson and veteran prop Benn Robinson say Cheika retains the full support of the Waratahs.
“As an organisation, we’re fully right behind him,” Gibson said on Thursday.
“Michael is a very passionate person and he believes strongly in standing up for the team.”
Robinson insisted Cheika’s battles with officialdom have had no bearing on the team’s performances and nor had the coach’s SANZAR hearing this week been a distraction ahead of the Waratahs’ hosting of the Hurricanes.
“For the players, it’s straight down to business (at training),” he said.
“If you look at Michael as a coach, he’s always got the team first and whatever it takes for him to allow the team to perform at its best, he’s going to do that.”
Cheika also upset the Brumbies earlier this season when he smashed a glass door in the coaches’ box during his side’s derby loss in Canberra.
But NSW captain Dave Dennis believes Cheika’s greatest strength is that “he wears his heart on his sleeve”.
“The players know what to expect from him,” Dennis told AAP.
“There’s no grey areas with Cheik. He’s obviously very honest with players and I think that’s a great quality he’s got.
“He’s probably shown over the course of the season that he’s quite passion about winning and I don’t think as a playing group it’s affected us at all.
“Obviously the public can form their own opinion but, as a playing group, we’ve still got a lot of respect for Cheik.”
Of more concern to the sixth-placed Waratahs is beating the fourth-placed Hurricanes at Allianz Stadium.
“It’s crucial,” Gibson said.
“Obviously we’re at that stage of the season for both teams that if we want to progress and stay in the hunt for the playoff spots that we win.
“But also equally how we really want to find our attacking mojo and get that back and score some good tries.”