Munster set the bar for Cheika
The good memories outweigh the bad. And it wasn’t just the trophies or the wins
MICHAEL CHEIKA this weekend returns to his native Sydney to become head coach of the New South Wales Waratahs, thereby ending his eight-year sojourn in European rugby. Not much happened to him along the way, just five rollercoaster years at Leinster and two even bumpier years with Stade Francais in the circus act that is the Top 14, while there was the small matter of marriage and three kids, with a fourth on the way.
“Croke Park. It’s probably the best game I’ve ever been involved in as a rugby person,” says the one-time Randwick and Waratahs number eight, who has coached and played in Australia, Italy, France and Ireland, in reference to the 2009 Heineken Cup semi-final. Two Irish teams going toe to toe and amongst a world record crowd for a club game of 82,208. “I remember walking up to the place where the coaches were sitting and actually saying to myself: ‘How am I actually involved in all of this? It’s all so big, what am I doing here?’ I felt really little, really small that day. It was a wonderful day.”
Cheika was in Dublin last week, ostensibly so that he and Stefanie could say so long to some friends from their time in Ireland. Stefanie, who is also from eastern suburbs in Sydney, is expecting their fourth child in January, to join Simon (three) and the twins Lucia and Mattias (two). He was also shown around Leinster’s new training facilities and business premise in UCD.
“I’ll be honest, the decision was made purely professionally. It’s a really good opportunity with my home province. My type of thing, y’know, a full turnaround; because it hasn’t been the best of times recently. We have a really good life in Paris and it’s really hard to leave. There’s always that bit of anxiety when you go into a new environment, and I haven’t been home in nearly eight years now. Going back to Australia is a big move for us, but the opportunity to coach New South Wales is just too good. You can’t let that opportunity go.”
There is also a sense of unfinished business in Paris. From 11th and the final of the Amlin Cup in his first season to seventh and the Amlin semis in year two, despite offloading 16 players and bringing in 20 in a preceding summer when Stade went to the brink of extinction before a new owner came in. Cheika was confident of further progress this season, but doesn’t go into reports of a rift with assistant coach Christiophe Lussucq and players such as scrumhalf Julien Dupuy.
“I’ve got to say I like the new owner of the club, Tomas (Savare), a lot. I wanted to offload a staff member and a couple of players who were iconic within the club. He didn’t want to do that. He thought the backlash would be too severe and at the end of the day it’s his money. He wanted to have all ex-players involved and he’s entitled to. It’s his money.”
French club rugby is a hard school for outside coaches, whatever about players, and Cheika’s departure leaves only Vern Cotter as a non-national head coach in the Top 14. “So there’s obviously a trick to it, but the formula is no different in Ireland, Scotland, Australia or whatever. Once the owner, or the CEO in a federation-owned club, is 100 per cent aligned with the coach and everyone is aligned, then it works. But that’s probably the biggest problem over here. That alignment, you find it very rarely. You find it at Toulouse and in Clermont probably, and it looks as if Toulon are starting to find it in their own radical way. You don’t find it in many other places but that’s just the nature of the beast. That’s just the way it is.”
Such an alignment, though at times tempestuous, existed at Leinster after they took a gamble on Cheika by appointing him in 2005. A Magners League title in his third season and a breakthrough Heineken Cup success a year later, and he is widely credited within the organisation for the legacy he left. Yet he says his sense of debt is greater.
“They gave me an opportunity to have the experiences that I had while I was there, not just the good ones, the bad ones as well. That’s what makes it. You’ve got to take the bad bits on the chin.”
As rollercoasters go though, the good memories outweigh the bad. And it wasn’t just the trophies or the wins. “I remember guys like Sexton giving me daggers from the bottom of the Donnybrook stand because I wouldn’t give him a run-out. And I remember bringing home guys like Jeno (Shane Jennings) and Leo (Cullen), and seeing the change and the maturity in guys like O’Driscoll and D’Arcy, who really became temples for their province, and that changing culture more than anything.
“The titles, you need a bit of luck to have those, but it felt like there was a long term and serious culture change that had echoed not just through the playing ranks, but also through the supporters and the whole perception of Leinster from outside, and respect from our closest neighbour, that being Munster. That’s what stands out for me. The rest is a consequence of that.”
No fixture assuredly cost Cheika and Leinster more grief, if ultimately more reward, than the meetings with Munster. Having traded home league wins in his first season, 2005-06, Munster put Leinster to the sword in the Heineken Cup semi-final at Lansdowne Road before finally conquering Europe with their win over Biarritz in the final.
After trading home league wins again in his second season, Leinster would complete the double in ’07-08 en route to winning the Celtic League, but that was overshadowed by Munster regaining the Heineken Cup. Whereupon, the roles were reversed in that Croke Park semi-final.
That constituted a landmark day, kickstarting a run of five successive Leinster wins over their rivals as they went on to win the first of their three Heineken Cup crowns.
For all the pain Leinster and Munster cause each other, they are good for each other. “Without doubt. Each side knows that if they can be competitive with the other, they can be competitive with anybody.”
Munster became the benchmark. “Not to emulate, just to be better than.” Ask him what Munster had that Leinster lacked and he says: “Probably team spirit really; a togetherness at that point. We put that together through our experiences, our ups and downs. They probably had more experiences then, more adversity, and they reacted to that adversity. For us, it was probably about learning how to react to adversity. We had to get respect and that was something that we claimed.”
The Heineken Cup meetings also contributed to the fixture outgrowing the RDS, to the point that Leinster are today hosting a third straight meeting in the Aviva.
“That’s become one of the best derbies around, just the passion that’s brought to it by the crowds and the players themselves, and how much everyone is up for it. It’s shown by the amount of people who go to the game and the way that it’s played – as I’m sure it will be played again,” he adds, with a knowing chuckle. “It’s almost a throwback to the old days, and I think that the Southern Hemisphere have lost days like that, in the way that they market their game.”
As for forecasting a winner, he admits: “I can only support one team, but I think they’ll have a few guys who were rested for last week’s game, and they’d paid for that a bit, they’ll benefit from that this week.”
To see Joe Schmidt and the current coaching staff build upon the foundations left by Cheika so spectacularly is “awesome”, according to former coach of the province. “Awesome,” is how he describes his successor’s work. “They’re a happy camp, they’ve improved their skills and they’re playing good footy. You can’t ask for much more than that.”
He continues to be a fan, and has watched them from his TV set in Paris regularly this season. “I know they got well beaten last week but they were missing a stack of players and Connacht are getting better and looking better. They’ve got their act together a lot more. It was never easy to go there before and that lesson will help the young guys. Once you start putting the experienced quality back in with those guys, it’s a good cycle to be in.”
During his recent visit, he was struck by how burnt the players and management were by missing out in a third successive league final, which he sees as a good barometer. “They’ve been at the top of European rugby for five years and this is where the senior guys keep prodding and pushing the group as a whole to stay at the top, because it’s very difficult to stay at the top.”
As for Munster, Cheika goes along with the view they have effectively been in transition for a few years. “Now they look alright. They look good. There’s a good influence of New Zealand coaching in Irish rugby and New Zealand rugby is the best in the world at the moment, and also there are some good Irish coaches coming through. What Conor O’Shea has done at Harlequins is amazing.”
He has likened Leinster to a machine, and it is not just a supporter’s blind faith that makes him believe they will win an historic third successive Heineken Cup. “Because they’ve got the experience, I think they’ll be hungry to do it at home and I think having Clermont in their group will have them on edge and that’s what they need, to be on edge. I’d back them to win it again.”
CHECK OUT CHEIKA: On Elwood’s decision to step down and Ireland’s performance in New Zealand
On French complaints about the lighter demands on the Pro 12 squads allows them to target Europe.
“I don’t have sympathy because that’s how they (the French) choose to run their game. But it is the truth, they are playing a lot more football. It’s inevitable that change will be afoot, whether the ERC move with that or whether it’s a new organisation that comes to the fore and takes over. But from speaking to some of the club presidents and people in England, they’ve made a decision that it’s going to change. I personally think that if it’s more competitive to qualify that will be good for European rugby all round as long as all countries are represented properly.”
On Eric Elwood’s decision to step down.
“When I left Leinster, that was my plan, to take a year off and recharge. And that was probably what I should have done. But the lure of coming to Paris was too good. Now I’ve had a bit of time off I feel really good, so I can understand what he’s saying. It’s a brave move. He’s done really well with them.”
On the IRFU player welfare programme and the provincial/Irish tug of war for players.
“I think that player management is important. I can’t speak for the other provinces, but I know that in Leinster they have the quality in athlete management and the coaches are savvy enough to understand what their best requirements are. I’m not saying the system is wrong, or the idea is wrong. The idea is right. But they (the IRFU) should be giving confidence to their people in Leinster because they’ve got high quality technicians there, in coaching, physio, medical and sports and athletic preparation, and they know those guys inside out, and they should be putting more trust in them.”
On the Irish team’s results in New Zealand. “One-off results like 60-0 can happen. I wouldn’t be basing everything on that. I think they just need to adopt one clear direction of how they want to play, build themselves an identity of how they want to play, and once they do that, they’ll be alright.”