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.