It’s shifted from hobby to national coach for hobo Cheika

When he moved to Stade Français he wanted to take Sexton and O’Brien along with him

Australia   coach Michael Cheika takes training at Blackrock. Photo: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Australia coach Michael Cheika takes training at Blackrock. Photo: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

Michael Cheika the hobo, the Pat Garrett of rugby union is back in town. As he was for Leinster by 2009 he became for the Waratahs this season; a coach who delivered the ultimate prize for a group embittered by the neighbours success.

There followed an off-field scandal of such ridiculous proportions, much of which will remain untold, that his old friend Ewen McKenzie resigned as Australia coach the morning of last month’s agonising one- point defeat to the All Blacks in Brisbane.

Within 48 hours the man who assured us on arrival in Dublin nine years ago that this was more hobby than anything else got crowned Wallaby king.

Sitting in a south Dublin hotel last evening the always genial interviewee resisted the title of career coach.

“I’m still not.”

Ah but it has happened.

“I don’t think it has even. Honestly. Literally I would never have thought what happened was going to happen.

“I always saw myself as a bit of an outsider, from the establishment per se, you know? Even when that did happen I didn’t think they were going to ask me. When they did you can’t say no when your country asks you to coach, no matter what the situation is, you have to say yes and then do the best you possibly can.”

In 2005 Mick Dawson, on the word of Alan Gaffney, met Cheika in a London hotel. Such was the impression he made that Leinster’s chief executive convinced the recruitment committee to gather around the then 38 year old in Dublin a few days later.

“At one point, he looked at us and said: ‘I know what you guys are thinking. Who the hell is Michael Cheika? You guys are taking a risk.’ Which is exactly what we were thinking,” Dawson told The Irish Times in 2006.

“They gave me the opportunity,” Cheika remembered. “No one would have picked a hobo like me to come and coach, especially in the situation they were in. I was their fourth coach in four years. It would have been much easier for them to get someone more established at the time.

“They took a gamble on me, in a serious way, and I learned a lot with the players I got to coach and the process I went though.”

Underachieving team

Challenge Cup

Back home to Sydney, as head coach of the Waratahs who he transformed from perennial also-rans to Super Rugby champions. Chieka’s a trouble-shooter (in the way Garrett sorted out Billy the Kid by shooting him dead).

“I like that idea. It’s tough. You don’t always make friends on the way. You’ve got to rough a few people up and you can rub people up the wrong way but it is always with the best intentions for the result at the end.”

Six tests Now, with six test matches until the World Cup, he must repeat the trick for the Wallabies.

“I’m always hands on. At Leinster what happened was, early on, I was a bit pulling by the ear, you know, ‘Come along for the ride.’ But as the guys matured and understood what was required not as much of that was needed. It was easier to go back into the background. But I am always on the field, always involved in coaching, always involved in the play.

“That’s why when Joe (Schmidt) took over it was exactly the right time. Different character, different influence and he was clearly the right character to do that.”

Schmidt also walked into the peak of Jonathan Sexton’s powers. Cheika had Felipe Contepomi in the 2008/09 season and allowed the 24 year old Sexton play AIL for St Mary’s.

The public saw what Cheika saw – a young player “shooting daggers at me” from the sideline when he stuck with Contepomi or Isa Nacewa at outhalf.

But Cheika rejects the suggestion that they ever clashed as personalities.

“He was probably ready to come into the team earlier that year, but that’s where you have to just make some judgement calls at the time, you can’t get it one hundred per cent right.

“Sometimes it just opens up and he took it with both hands. I know he went to Racing but when I went to Stade Francais he was the first person I wanted to get over to play there. Him and Seán O’Brien, so that just about sums up what I think of him.

“I don’t think we banged heads. I loved him. He’s everything I want in a player; he’s aggro. He’s competitive. He’s got skills. He practices hard. He’s cool under pressure. What else do you want in a player?”

All’s well that ends well.

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