Leinster lions: Joe Schmidt and Michael Cheika go head to head

Two giants of the game honed their skills at the province on the way to the top

Joe Schmidt:   Ireland and Michael Cheika’s Australia  clash in the Aviva Stadium at 5.30pm on Saturday. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Joe Schmidt: Ireland and Michael Cheika’s Australia clash in the Aviva Stadium at 5.30pm on Saturday. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho


Same? Well, same, but different. Joe and Cheiks. How best to describe, never mind compare, them? Ask around. Ruthless, lethally so. One more blatant than his subtle opposite. Cut from the same cloth. “When we look at the history of Leinster rugby, Michael did five years, Joe did three – it will treat them both very, very well,” says Mick Dawson, Leinster chief executive then and now.

The silverware garnered between 2009 and 2013 could remain forever untouchable.

Origins? Joe Schmidt hails from Woodville (population 1,470) but initially came down from Kawakawa, another tiny town high up New Zealand’s North Island.

Michael Cheika is the son of Lebanese migrants raised in working-class Coogee (Aborigine translation: stinking seaweed), down the southeast coast from Sydney.

Known unknowns: Leinster gambled on the pair of them.

Cheika was only 42 in that 2005 preseason when he began barking orders from a makeshift building in the Old Belvedere RFC car park.

A nobody. Or more accurately: another Randwick recruit on walkabout, the suspicion lingered that Leinster were being taking for a ride. Turns out they were, a joyous roughshod one.

This was before brand Leinster had been established, a time when you could walk through Dublin and see only GAA or Premiership jerseys.

“Michael came in during a different stage in Leinster’s evolution, closer to the beginning. The club had had some success before he got here . . . ” Dawson says.

But nowhere near enough.

In 2003, Matt Williams’s last year, they reached the Heineken Cup semi-final only to lose at home to Perpignan, a stinging result as everyone trickled home knowing Toulouse would make up an all-French final at Lansdowne Road.

Substantial risk

Gary Ella’s forgettable stint before Declan Kidney came and went back to Munster due to unfortunate circumstances meant Leinster and their chief executive were perilously aware that the third coaching appointment in as many seasons simply could not fail.

Yet they took a substantial risk on a boxer-nosed backrow of little renown with rumours of his lucrative fashion background, working for iconic Australian designer Collette Dinnigan, a confusing contradiction in terms.

“We’d all be on the golf course,” Dawson could laugh by 2006 if another appointment failed.

Cheika was smart enough to sense any coach’s most valuable asset – time – was on his side. But Leinster was his third preferred destination as much as Cheika was initially Leinster’s sixth choice behind former Lions coach Ian McGeechan, John Kirwan, Matt Williams (as a second coming), Nigel Melville and Gary Gold.

Despite guiding Randwick to the Shute Shield, the New South Wales premier grade trophy, in 2004, he was passed over as coach of the newly formed Western Force. Former All Black coach John Mitchell was appointed while Wasps took one look at Cheika’s rough exterior before hiring McGeechan.

Alan Gaffney suggested that Dawson at least meet him. Bob Dwyer said he would coach the Wallabies some day. Randwick mafia selling their boy or genuine praise? Hard to decipher . . .

Influential players

Leinster grasped the importance of due diligence (especially with Brian O’Driscoll dropping goals in Biarritz). The Force and Wasps were contacted with the simple query: why not Cheika? Answer (both times): we went for the big name.

Three wise men – Dawson, Paul McNaughton and Brian McLoughlin – met with influential Leinster players who conveyed the collective fear of appointing a disciplinarian. The players’ primary demand was for technically skilled coaches, so they could improve while entering their prime and so they could win trophies.

They ended up with all the above.

John Fogarty, the current Leinster scrum coach who was a Cheika hooker, says: “A lot has been said about how Cheiks came in and changed the culture within the culture. From one season to the next, himself and Mike Brewer did a great job with Leinster. There were changes happening anyway with the playing group but he certainly put his mark on the team. [Their methods] were certainly very abrasive, very direct. I’m sure a lot of people here will be glad to see him back.”

Nobody noticed the slight, former Mullingar outhalf and his wife easing through arrivals in Dublin Airport during the spring of 2010. Again, the players had been consulted: not who they want, what they want. Make us better (Jono Gibbes had already replaced Brewer as forwards coach).

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Schmidt was quietly effective in the shadow of Vern Cotter as Bay of Plenty won the Ranfurly Shield in 2004 and Clermont Auvergne finally captured the Bouclier de Brennus in 2010, but a three-season stint as Auckland Blues (2004-07) assistant coach meant Isa Nacewa had experienced a fledgling version of his expertise.  

What clinched the appointment was Schmidt making sure Leinster had the same ambition he exuded from his steely stare behind a polite, engaging veneer.

Media savvy in distinctive ways, Schmidt insists upon controlled utterances in rare, cemented appearances on a team-naming Thursday and immediately post-match (always after the opposing coach). When asked a question he has not predicted or does not care to answer, he wanders off in a different direction.

Cheika is constantly relaying his team’s public message, especially in times of trouble. Leinster players and staff used to look at journalists like we had two heads whenever we said Cheika was engaging, friendly even. When asked a question he doesn’t like, he bristles before reverting to self-effacing humour. 

Both treat the media like a class of children, just of varying ages.  

Both made a name for themselves at Leinster. Both became career coaches in Dublin, one convincing himself that a return to vice-principal duties was no longer feasible, the other abandoning a far more lucrative life in the rag trade.

Same yet different.

Control freaks

Cheika said this week he didn’t watch opposition. “That’s not my job really. The other boys have that covered. Stephen Larkham, Nathan [Grey], Mick [Byrne]. They do all that. I try to concentrate on our team.”

Schmidt forensically pores over each individual opponent and setpiece in search of the faintest twitching tell.

“They both exude a lot of the same traits; a huge appetite for work. Both have a great attention to detail. Both exude a bit of that control-freakyness. Neither of them ever shy away from tough decisions so, in their work, they are very similar in my opinion,” Dawson says.

“What I mean by control freaks is they want to know what’s going on in the whole club. They have an interest in everything. It is just their make-up and personality. If you are too laid back in that job, you will miss something. These two liked to know what was going on, whether it be on the commercial side or team affairs.”

Fogarty says: “They are incredibly competitive. They want to win. They are very intense and that’s in every interaction you will have with them. They are well-prepared for everything they do, for when they present to players, for match day.”

What makes them different? “I am not going to go into it in too much detail,” Fogarty says. “They’re different personalities. That’s it.”

Individual roles

Gordon D’Arcy presents two sides of the same coin: “They are both tactically very good but it is how they motivate their teams that separates them.

“Cheika’s way is more emotive, he circles the wagons, where he would be saying, ‘those people don’t respect you’ to create the environment of having pride in your work, pride that is needed to succeed and where you don’t want to let anyone down.

“Cheika’s way of coaching can be harder to recreate on a more consistent basis. Sometimes things just go well and you don’t need a chip on your shoulder. That can let you down the next week because when you rely on emotion, you need that to be consistent but that’s the thing about emotion: it isn’t consistent.

“While with Joe, he tries to take emotion out of it and always talks about trying not to show any, that it is almost like a business. He always talks about taking the referee out of the equation, and by everyone doing their individual roles more consistently there is a higher chance of a performance, and if you have a higher chance of a performance, you have a higher chance of a win.

“So, when it is based on technical foundations, when an emotive occasion comes up, you can perform above your normal functioning self. That’s not to say Cheiks wasn’t a very good technical coach, he was creative about how we played the game.

“Just go back to the Rocky Elsom break against Munster [in 2009]. That was straight off the training field.

“Cheiks holds everyone, to a man, to the highest standards in the same way Joe does. And they bring in high-quality assistants so people want to work for them.”

Same yet different.

Healthier position

Mick Dawson says: “Michael certainly left the club in a healthier position both on the field, particularly, and off the pitch. He recruited very well: Isa Nacewa, Rocky Elsom, CJ van der Linde. During Michael’s time we moved to the RDS which created access for new fans to come see the team.”

Cheika is more bullish, Joe more subtle?

“That would certainly be the outside perception,” he says. “Look, they exude all the same traits in their work, just with different personalities off the pitch.”

Cheika knows how to build a business.

“In Cheika’s time we moved to Riverview [the fitness club in Clonskeagh] and he was very much influential in nudging us towards UCD,” says Dawson. “A lot of the designs and how the building was fitted out were definitely Michael’s idea.

“Joe came in to a more settled team and in the club in a far better space in comparison to when Michael arrived.”

They were finally crowned European champions in Cheika’s penultimate season, before he moved to Stade Français in Paris. Schmidt then went about creating a dynasty from that very first campaign.

“Michael has ended up as head coach in Australia which is a fantastic achievement,” says Dawson. “Hindsight would suggest he did the right thing.

“Joe’s success here meant he got offered the national job. It was disappointing from our point of view because he had another year on his contract but we all understood it was a promotion. The union would be vindicated in making the right decision there.”

Dawson is in the unique position of being in the room as Schmidt and Cheika interviewed for the same job.  

“Both of them came across as really impressive men with a clear vision of what they wanted to do, and yet, while we were recruiting them and they were selling themselves to us, they were trying to find out our ambition,” he says.

O’Driscoll for Cheika and Sexton for Schmidt allayed any concerns.

“You’ve met them, know what they are like,” Dawson says. “They would have succeeded in numerous walks of life. We were just lucky to get them at the time we did. I think it worked out for both of them and us.”

How best to describe them? Ask around. Ask those who refuse to be quoted.

Same answer comes every time: lethal operators.

Now put their teams in direct opposition. And blow a whistle.

With all due respect: what the coaches think

Cheika on Schmidt: “[I rate him] very highly. It’s been seen first of all in what he did with Leinster and when you speak to players and how they refer to him, the type of language and tone they use when they talk about him.

“And now what he’s done with Ireland: he’s stepped up from being a number two in Clermont, he came here and has done a great job. He’s made that change. Not everyone makes that jump. I don’t know him a lot personally, just bits and pieces, but he seems like a very good person. And he’s obviously done a great job.” Schmidt on Cheika: “I don’t really have a relationship with him. I’ve chatted to him a few times. Obviously I came into Leinster when he moved on. I saw him a couple of times when he was with Stade Français briefly, but I didn’t see him after the game last time we played Australia [in 2014] as I was taken to hospital straight after with the appendicitis.

“No doubt I’ll see him after the game and have a bit of a chat to him. I know Mario Ledesma really well. He’s a great fella. I know Mick Byrne well. It will be good to catch up with those guys. I respect them both.”

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