Michael Cheika formula has mended a broken team
The Australia coach sat down with Gerry Thornley to discuss his motivational tactics
Listening to Michael Cheika calmly take all refereeing decisions on the chin, it’s been hard to equate this remodelled man with the coach who once berated officials so much that he was on the verge of running himself out of the sport. For years he fought the law, and the law always won.
At times these past few weeks, as must have been the case for any of his former Leinster charges watching their old boss, aka Mr Angry, on his charm offensive, it was hard to keep a straight face. But he’s learned a few tricks along the way.
The day after the statement by World Rugby that Craig Joubert had erred in awarding Australia the late penalty that saved them against Scotland in the quarter-finals, Cheika took issue with the game’s governing body. Very smart. Not only very statesmanlike, but New Cheika also ingratiated himself with the refereeing fraternity in the process.
The referees’ new best friend? Where did Mr Angry go?
Speaking to The Irish Times two days before the biggest game of his life – though you wouldn’t think it from his typically relaxed, shoot-the-breeze demeanour – he said, with the laugh that has been almost a daily feature of the build-up to this match: “Mate, if I didn’t learn from my mistakes, you’d be calling me an idiot, wouldn’t you?
“It’s just experience, you know? Getting more experience, from talking to guys and talking to the refs, and me understanding more that it can’t always go your way, do you know what I mean? But still try to be well prepared around all that stuff.
“But it’s not like I’m running a campaign for anyone, it’s just that my team need to be very, very disciplined around all of that stuff and that’s what I’ve tried to do.”
Already during the course of this tournament, Cheika has readily acknowledged that any sense of debt Leinster owe him for the five years he and they grew as coach and squad, is entirely reciprocal. This is again pertinent this week, for his first experience of a final as a coach was with Leinster when they reached their Holy Grail of a first Heineken Cup win against Leicester in Murrayfield in 2009.
“All experiences help,” he admitted. “You try to work out what happened there and improve it, and improve different bits and pieces along the way from what you’ve learned from the past. Otherwise you’ve got nothing to go on.
“So definitely all that stuff helps build up, because it’s the only thing that I can go off, that and my gut obviously, to prepare myself for what we’ve been doing over the campaign as a whole.”
That Leinster-Leicester final was a little different. Leinster’s seismic semi-final win over Munster in Croke Park had avenged the loss at the same stage three years beforehand, both of which marked significant benchmarks for coach and province alike. There was also a three-week break between semi-final and final, which was also filled in with two league matches.
“Mate, one of the big things I remember over that finals period was more about the mental preparation for the team. Like, compared to the final series we played earlier in 2005-06, I think we felt that we were a lot more stressed about it because we probably weren’t ready. We weren’t ready, we weren’t prepared as well, and you know that when you’ve prepared well you can be much more relaxed mentally.
To comparisons with Lee Marvin in The Dirty Dozen, such is his desire to examine every possible permutation, he recently said: “I just feel that nothing binds a team together more than working hard, sweating a little, spilling a bit of blood together. It builds respect. We follow a style that we believe is the Australian way. Working hard to produce a better place for others: it is the way Australia itself was built.”
The experience Cheika has garnered, to make him a calmer individual, is also significant in the context of this tournament and this week. For he has projected this calmness onto this Wallabies set-up. As well as being technically in a better place, mentally they are clearly in a very good place too.
At Leinster, he was seen as the necessary tough guy to instil discipline. The same was anticipated of him with a Wallabies squad which, when he inherited it, was attracting more attention for their ill-discipline off the field.
But Cheika didn’t slam the table and draw up a list of rules. Rather, he has treated them like adults, embraced all the different personalities (“the lovers and the fighters”, as he calls them) and cultural identities, so that the players have learned to police themselves.
When Will Genia was asked about this, he said: “There haven’t been any issues. He’s a very genuine, honest guy who tells you how it is. He tells us what he expects of us as individuals and what it means to be a Wallaby. Those things [off-field issues] are not acceptable. It’s amazing the buy-in the group has had in terms of the direction he’s taking this team.”
Not, of course, that Mr Angry has entirely gone away. Cheika is clearly still a hard taskmaster and can be ruthless or demanding when he feels there’s a need. When was asked by the ARU to take over from Ewen McKenzie, aside from his salary demands and remaining with the Waratahs for one more year, he insisted the union draw up a rule allowing him to include, if he so wished, the French-based trio of Matt Giteau, Drew Mitchell and George Smith.
Smith, like ex-Wallabies captain James Horwill, didn’t make the cut despite having played over 60 Tests for Australia, nor indeed did Nic White, despite his match-winning cameo in the win over New Zealand in Sydney.
Mitchell did, but only after being whipped into shape – which is perhaps more a damning indictment on fitness levels at French club rugby than the player himself. “When I first came back, I had a bit of work to do and that was identified by Cheika and the coaching staff,” he said with a wry smile that was matched by an even wider one from Cheika beside him.
“Myself and one of the other boys were singled out for some extra duties over there in Notre Dame. I probably don’t have the fondest memories of that place, but good to get out of there. In all seriousness, coming over here and playing a number of games back-to-back and being able to still contribute later in the games has been pleasing. It’s hard to say whether you’re at your best or close to your best. Hopefully my best is still to come and hopefully I can play well [in the final].”
Mitchell didn’t score last week, but produced the play of the match when beating six tackles to set up Adam Ashley-Cooper’s third try in a meandering run reminiscent of his match-winning try for Toulon in last May’s European Cup final win over Clermont in Cardiff. A team-mate that day was Matt Giteau, whose recall from the wilderness has been handsomely vindicated by a string of strong performances, giving the team a second playmaker and an improved tactical kicking game.
Giteau, of course, is a survivor from the 2003 final. That experience can compensate for the All Blacks playing in back-to-back finals, added to which are attacking and defence coaches Stephen Larkham and Nathan Grey, both of whom were members of the Australian squads that reached the finals of 1999 and 2003.
Asked about Cheika during the week, Grey smiled warmly and said: “He’s a great guy, he’s a good character. He knows his rugby very well and he knows how to get guys in the right space. He’s a really nice guy to work with. He’s a hard taskmaster, but you’d expect nothing less.”
Cheika would go on to embellish his experience of finals with the New South Wales Waratahs where, akin to Leinster, he led a capital city franchise to their first Super Rugby final and their first Super Rugby title in a 32-22 win over the Crusaders in 2014.
Now he’s topped those achievements by taking Australia to their first World Cup final in 12 years, winning the Rugby Championship along the way and emerging on top of the group of death ahead of Wales and England, holding their nerve and riding their luck against Scotland, before clinically beating Argentina.
After an initial stint of playing and coaching in Italy, he cut his teeth some more with his home club Randwick, and between Leinster and the Waratahs he had his two relatively unfulfilling years in Stade Francais before being the victim of a very French coup.
All in all though, given nine years’ coaching in Europe in three different countries, and seven years’ coaching in Australia at club, provincial and Test level, few people in the global game are better qualified to comment on the supposed divide between the two hemispheres. In this World Cup, the Southern Hemisphere teams have won all seven head-to-heads to ensure they occupied all four semi-final berths.
But while the bald statistic would suggest the gulf has never been bigger, Cheika doesn’t quite agree with that judgment.
“Mate, I don’t think so. Some of the matches have been very narrow and I think one of the big issues is around timing. We come back off the Rugby Championship. Now that can be taken both ways. Do you play too many games or not enough? But I found the reduced Rugby Championship for our situation was good for preparation. They were tough games against some of the top teams and got us into the groove, whereas for those countries who have to play friendly matches, it’s not always that same intensity.
“I don’t know for sure, but I don’t think the gap is that big. Like, you saw our game against Wales. It could have gone either way, and Scotland the same. That was very close,” he admitted, with a knowing smile.
“I just think injuries hurt them in the end. I think if you lose five key players – and I know they won’t want an excuse culture – but you lose five players of that importance it’s very, very difficult, and against quality opposition. If the opposition is not quality then it’s different, but Argentina is quality opposition so to lose those guys and in particular Sexton. He’s your main man, and that’s pretty hard to come back from.”
Plain speaking. No bull.
As wherever he has gone, Cheika has sought to install what he calls those “old-school values” formed from the club game in Sydney with Randwick.
As the most regular face of these Wallabies, talking in public roughly three times a week, he has conveyed the impression of a coach who is not feeling pressure in also deflecting attention from his players.
“People like to talk about the whole pressure thing, you know, but for me, we love playing the game. If the game was amateur, everyone would still be playing. There may not be as many journalists at this press conference, but everyone would still be playing because we love the game. The only time you feel pressure is if you haven’t prepared as best as you possibly can. Let’s prepare as best we can, go out there and do our best. I’ve said it before many times, the cards will fall where they fall.”
It’s been a long old haul, and a rollercoaster ride to this final, for Cheika and his equally merry band of Wallabies. But he seems to be enjoying himself.
“I think the team has helped. The players have been really good. They’ve done a lot of hard work that we’ve asked of them, and they’ve also shown a lot of character, and that’s made the group; especially the guys that haven’t been playing. They’ve been outstanding in their approach towards training and everything; the whole atmosphere of the team, and that’s made it very easy.
“And the coaching staff, and the rest of the staff. I’ve enjoyed their company. Apart from Adam [Freier],” he says, of the Wallabies press officer standing nearby. Freier, the ex-Wallabies hooker, typical of the loyalty Cheika gives and inspires, couldn’t say no to his one-time, occasional Randwick team-mate back in the day, and has been doing an excellent job as the media pack has swelled to around 200 for their media events.
“Yeah, I am actually enjoying it. I can’t not.”
And it appears to be infectious.