Michael Cheika anticipating special derby atmosphere
Australia coach believes his old club Leinster are in for an interesting encounter with Ulster
Australia coach Michael Cheika in 2009 when he was head coach of Leinster. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Michael Cheika remains a well-liked figure hereabouts and the feeling works both ways. He still makes fairly regular sorties back to Ireland and an upcoming Leinster get-together on the 10th anniversary of the province’s breakthrough 2009 Heineken Cup success will provide another opportunity to relive some good memories.
Tomorrow’s all-Irish quarter-final at the Aviva Stadium also brought to mind the two semi-final derbies between Leinster and Munster in his five-year tenure as head coach; significant benchmark days in providing confirmation of Munster’s supremacy and then the ensuing shift in the balance of power.
Munster stymied Leinster’s attempts to unseat them in 2006 at Lansdowne Road en route to the first of their two Heineken Cups, before Leinster avenged that loss at Croke Park three years later en route to the first of their four.
“Mate, it’s interesting. I’ve experienced a few derbies in the Heineken Cup and both ends of the derby sword, and the one thing I’ve noticed is that there’s a really different atmosphere around the game.
“I remember the game at Croke Park and I was walking out on the field and I looked at Jono [Gibbes] and I said: ‘Gibbes mate, what are we doing here? What are we doing in the middle of this?’ That’s what the derbies in Ireland do, they create a different atmosphere altogether than any other game.
“So, even though Leinster will be favourites, it’s going to be a very even battle, just because of that fact in itself. Not that I’ll be here waving a flag, and if I was I’d be waving a blue one, but it should be a really, really interesting game.”
Cheika is still quick to thank Leinster for giving him his first head coaching job of a fully professional organisation, and also for the backing he received from people such as Mick Dawson and Paul McNaughton.
“Ah I don’t know if I started it all, there was plenty happening before me but it was pretty good. We had a good time. Obviously it is a big part of our lives. Three of our four kids have got Irish passports, were born here. It’s a very strong connection.”
He still gets up in the middle of the night in Sydney to watch some of Leinster’s big games. The Leinster masseuse, Mike Thompson, is godfather to his and Stephanie’s eldest, Simon, who wants his Leinster jersey autographed by the players at the aforementioned reunion.
Cheika takes pride in seeing how Leinster have developed. “Mate, it’s always an interesting conundrum in coaching; the ‘to leave a legacy or not to leave a legacy? That is the question.’ We are in a big theatre here so I may as well use that,” he quipped while in one of the bars at the back of the Olympia Theatre, adorned with black-and-white photographs of Irish actors.
“Often there is the more pragmatic way that says, ‘Okay, we’ll just get the results. Screw everything else, burn everything you can.’ Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes you want to leave a legacy, build coaching coming through, build players coming through because it’s part of what you do.
“It’s not always guaranteed to be successful in the time you are here or after but here, it worked. Joe [Schmidt] did a brilliant job when he came in and took them to another level. The players went to another level as well.”
Cheika was at the Aviva when England beat Ireland nine weeks ago, but he gives short shrift to the notion that Ireland peaked last year.
“Absolutely not. Everyone’s got their opinion, haven’t they? I don’t think so myself. I believe that every game has its own life. When you turn up it’s zero-zero, and that’s why the team that’s running last can be the team that’s running first on any given day. So, I think looking at those things as a guide to what can happen later on is a trap.”
Nor does he buy into the theory that Schmidt’s Ireland have been worked out.
“Mate, he’s been pretty unbelievable as a coach over here if you think about it, and there’s going to be the odd person here or there who might say something like that but I certainly don’t believe that.”
“I think he’s got an excellent strategy. We battled against them in three Tests in Australia, so we saw it close up, and yeah, I think they’ll be right up there when the whips are cracking in September/October/November for sure.”
That was, of course, in reference to the finishing straight at the World Cup. Despite the Wallabies’ difficult 2018, with just four wins, he remains upbeat about his own team’s chances.
“Yeah mate, I’m always a believer, there’s no doubt about it. I think we’ve got a really similar situation to 2015. But what’s a little bit different is that we blooded a lot more players after ‘15 with this specific aim of getting experience, guys who we started then have now got 40 or 50 caps, and the struggles of last year and what we got through it, will only make us better.
“If I look at Super Rugby now, we’ve got stuff to build on. We’re a lot more competitive, there’s a lot more on the ball happening, we’ve got to get a lot more off the ball happening, but there’s a lot more physicality in our game.
“But I’m always a believer. We’ll surprise a person or two by the time we get there. I think the build-up is going to be important too, the Rugby Championship and the Bledisloe. You want to build momentum. If you want to improve, momentum’s important, so we’ll be looking to those tournaments straight away.”
Michael Cheika was speaking ahead of the Heineken Champions Cup quarter-finals at the Heineken Rugby Club Off The Ball event in The Olympia Theatre in Dublin.