Cheika has restored Wallabies, but has he timed his run?
LONDON (AP) For all the experiences Michael Cheika has brought into his rebuilding regime at the Wallabies, it’s the one he can’t share with the Australian players that seems to drive him most.
He never got to play a test match. Being close, but not close enough, gives him a perspective as national coach that elevates the responsibility he casts on the players he picks to wear the gold jersey.
When he was asked about preparing captain Stephen Moore and center Matt Giteau for their 100th test appearances in the Rugby World Cup quarterfinal against Scotland, Cheika said he couldn’t give any advice in one department.
”I never played any – so I don’t know what it’s like. So I can’t tell them,” Cheika said. ”Every time you play for Australia, it’s very important – I imagine.”
The safety clause at the end of statement didn’t fool anyone. Playing for Australia is so important in Cheika’s estimation that he does everything possible to remind his players how lucky they are, and how they don’t want to waste opportunities.
Cheika was a hard, uncompromising backrower who represented Australia at under-21 level, had a long playing career with Randwick – the Sydney club where he was surrounded by Wallabies and schooled in the running rugby ethos of the Galloping Greens – and played for New South Wales briefly before moving to Europe. It’s where his playing career wound down and his coaching career took off.
His appointment wasn’t unilaterally endorsed by Australian rugby fans, who wondered whether he had the temperament to handle the top job – he had been prone to emotional outbursts.
But his coaching CV was undisputed, including his claim to being the first man to win major club titles in both hemispheres – he won the European Cup at Leinster in 2009 and finally delivered a Super Rugby title for the New South Wales Waratahs in 2014.
After being hired to replace Ewen McKenzie, who left suddenly after the 2014 Rugby Championship, Cheika lost three of his first four tests in charge of a squad that was in disarray.
What Cheika wanted to instill in the squad was a sense of unity, so in adversity the players would be harder to beat. In 2015, it seems to be working. While down to 13 men against No. 3-ranked Wales, the Wallabies didn’t concede a point. Cheika was proud, but his immediate reaction was, ”That was only for eight minutes – the game goes for 80.”
When they snuck home in the quarterfinals with a contentious last-minute penalty goal after conceding a late intercept try to Scotland, he commended the Wallabies for staying true to their running game but blamed his naivety for insisting on Australia sticking to its playing identity.
He’s open to speaking enough about his methods, be it in English, French or Italian, but it’s what he says in private to his players that has them convinced Cheika’s way is the right way.
”There’s a lot of love for Cheik,’ Scott Fardy, the under-rated blindside flanker in Australia’s backrow, explained. ”He’s got a lot of passion, and that comes through in his coaching, and it comes through in the way he talks. There’s also a lot of respect for Cheik within the group.”
Having no fear of losing his job helps. In business, Cheika was successful enough that he’s certainly not coaching for the money. It’s his passion. At 48, he still gets involved in opposed training sessions, and survives.
He took the Wallabies job seemingly on his own terms, insisting on staying on as Waratahs coach in Super Rugby, and convincing rival coaches – including Brumbies tactician and former World Cup winner Stephen Larkham – to join him.
The Australian Rugby Union later changed its selection criteria to allow experienced foreign-based players to be eligible for the Wallabies, a move that allowed for the recall of Giteau and Drew Mitchell from France.
And he secured the coaching services of retired Argentina hooker Mario Ledesma as Australia’s scrum doctor, adding the finishing touches to restoring a sense of muscle and menace to the Wallabies game.
Together, they won the Rugby Championship, clinching it with a win over New Zealand in Sydney, a week before a heavy defeat in a return match in Auckland for the Bledisloe Cup – Australia’s only defeat of 2015.
Cheika has even tried to convince outsiders that his Australians are the underdogs ahead of the semifinals, which feature all four teams from the Rugby Championship. Australia plays Argentina on Sunday, a day after defending champion New Zealand and South Africa go head to head.
”We’re the junior member of the four because I’ve only been coaching only one Rugby Championship,” Cheika said, adding that Daniel Houcarde of Argentina, Steve Hansen of New Zealand, and Heyneke Meyer of South Africa had the advantage because they’d all been coaching in the tournament for four seasons.
”They’ve got more experience than me in the preparation for the Rugby Championship, etc. But we’ll prepare the best we possibly can and set out a plan to perform on Sunday.”