Melbourne - New South Wales Waratahs coach Michael Cheika has slammed the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) for its extraordinary 11th hour decision to pull fullback Israel Folau out of Saturday's Super Rugby match against Western Force due to player safety concerns.
Sidelined for two weeks with a throat injury, Folau had been picked for the Perth clash after being deemed fit to play by Waratahs medical staff.
However, the ARU's chief medical officer Warren McDonald overruled his selection late on Friday, leaving Cheika to break the bad news to brilliant fullback Folau and re-jig his gameplan on the eve of the match.
“Frustrated!” Folau wrote on his Twitter account, while Cheika, in a telephone interview from Perth, told Reuters the ARU had breached protocols by conducting their own independent medical analysis without notifying the team.
He bristled at the suggestion the Waratahs had been prepared to risk the player's safety.
“When every rugby player runs out onto the field there's a risk,” the 47-year-old said. “The reality is that we felt, and we do still feel, that we did everything correctly.
“I'm disappointed that there isn't faith in the way we do things ... (Israel is) very disappointed. He wanted to play. I'm the one left having to tell him he can't play and having to get him upset with me, even though it's not my decision.”
Cheika said the ARU had contacted a specialist earlier in the week without the team's knowledge and sat back as Folau undertook “full-contact” training sessions on Tuesday and Thursday, before officially notifying the team of the decision on Friday.
“No medical person from the ARU has been in contact with Israel the whole time, that's why we were disappointed,” Cheika said.
“Everyone knew he was going through the process of training, full contact training. Which sometimes, for a guy in his position, full contact is more regular in training than you will have in a game.
“I don't think (this) has ever happened, full-stop,” Cheika added. “I certainly haven't seen it before.”
The ARU's McDonald said in a statement that Folau's injury had not healed to the point where it was in his “best interests” to play.
“This is a player welfare issue, which has been the focus of all medical staff involved in this difficult decision, and we'll continue to work on the plan for his return as soon as possible,” he said.
News of the 15-test Wallaby's withdrawal drew scorn on social media on Saturday.
“If the @QantasWallabies were playing the @AllBlacks this weekend, would the medical staff still have rested @IzzyFolau??” former Wallabies winger Drew Mitchell, now playing for French club Toulon, posted on Twitter, referring to Australia's arch-rivals New Zealand.
The sensational decision robs the Waratahs of a player who has scored eight tries in four matches this season for a tough away match against a team riding a four-match winning streak.
It also underlines Folau's status as Australian rugby's most prized asset, as both a proven match-winner at international level and pin-up boy for a football code struggling for relevance in Australia's saturated sports market.
The move will raise eyebrows over the ARU's discretionary powers, coming nearly two months before the Wallabies' season-opening three-test series against France in June.
Cheika, who coached Irish club Leinster to their maiden Heineken Cup triumph in 2009, said Wallabies back Kurtley Beale would switch to fullback to cover Folau, with Jono Lance moving to inside centre and Tala Grey coming into the reserves.
He added that he felt Folau's reinstatement was out of the team's hands.
“There's nothing for us to do now,” he said. “If we felt he's fit to play this week, then he's fit to play next week. The ball's well and truly in their court now. They're taken charge of it, so there's nothing we can do really.” - Reuters