Hard boiled Cheika happy to have a good crack at England
Australia coach painting hosts as surefire favourites for Saturday
Australia coach Michael Cheika enjoys a good laugh during an Australia media session at the Grange Wellington Hotel in London, United Kingdom. Photograph: Dan Mullan/Getty Images
Even with two players on the way home Michael Cheika didn’t flinch at the Australian team hotel in Pimlico. Wycliff Palu and Will Skelton are out of the tournament, Cheika told the room. The damaged hamstring of Palu was a particular blow. But if there was an inflection in his voice that conveyed unease, it wasn’t noticeable. Cheika comes too hard boiled.
There are few who have looked into the Australian coach’s eyes and read anything other than what he wants them to see. Yesterday that look was ‘Another dumbass question about England?’
It was difficult to see this week in any other way than through an English prism. His loss of the two players was born with heartfelt regret, the questions on England with cold pragmatism delivered in a tone that could stop a loaded question before it got past the camera lens.
Cheika didn’t betray any signs that he has softened.
Are England damaged? Does the World Cup need England?
“That’s not my domain. Sorry,” said Cheika. “I’m not the tournament organiser. I’m not the coach of England just the simple coach of the Australian team.”
Are England a wounded animal? Was Chris Robshaw right?
“Look mate,” said Cheika when the Robshaw question arose. “I know what you want to get out of the answer, obviously. That has no effect on this game for us.
“Game day is my day off,” he added throwing his hands in the air. “We’ve done our bit, the coaches. The players, they run the show. I’m not making a judgement on the decision the captain makes. My judgement came when I picked the captain and said ‘right I trust you to do whatever you need to do.’”
It has been a feature of England and probably a fiction of Australia that the hosts are the only team feeling pressure. Matt Giteau to the left of Cheika may be one. He sat grinning, seemingly enjoying sure handed Cheika tackle the Brit-pack.
He knows he’s here on a pardon along with Toulon club-mate Drew Mitchell. The Australian Rugby Union (ARU) did a back flip this year and permitted those who had 60 caps and held a contract with the ARU for seven years or more to be considered for selection.
Last time the 33-year-old was involved in an old rivals match was the autumn Test in 2014. Not on the pitch, he was in the Twickenham stand necking beer with Mitchell.
“That’s right I was having a few beers with Drew,” says Giteau. “It was my third year I hadn’t played international rugby so it was normal for me like going to any football game and watching it as a supporter.For myself and Drew, the ones that have come back we’re just grateful to get the opportunity.”
Giteau is used to being knocked back. He was in Australia’s 2003 squad, expected to be in the 2011 tournament but wasn’t picked by Robbie Deans.
“I’m more grateful now than when I was consistently playing. I suppose you take it for granted, a shocking thing to take for granted – playing for your country.
“Now that I’ve been given a second chance, it’s just the little things like getting excited when you get your kit again. I felt like I was 19 or 20 when I first came in. I’m relishing being back.”
England stuck to their hard line view, which excluded Toulon’s backrow Steffan Armitage, who fell foul of the rule barring overseas players to represent England other than in ‘exceptional circumstances’.
And that is where they find themselves now. There will be bones picked over if England make their earliest exit ever. And as Cheika gleefully explained playing England “in their own back yard” makes them surefire favourites.
The rivalry, antagonism, antipathy and loathing is the seasoning in the simmering Twickenham pot. On that, Cheika can’t dissimulate, not at least while keeping a straight face.
“I don’t think you hide from it . . . ” he says. “We’re well aware of who we are playing in this competition. We have been for a long time.”