Michael Cheika sorry to miss a shot at old boy Brian O’Driscoll

NSW Waratahs coach delighted to have helped in development of Lions’ Leinster contingent


Everywhere you go on this Oz Odyssey, you seem to run into coaches who served some of their apprenticeship in Ireland. Against the Waratahs on Saturday, the Lions will face a team coached by Michael Cheika, with Alan Gaffney one of his coaching coterie and Mike Brewer a consultant.

Next Tuesday in Canberra, one of Jake White’s assistants is Lawrie Fisher, and the Lions have still to bump into the Wallabies’ assistant coach, Tony McGahan.

None have the gravitas or force of personality of Cheika, and none have left a bigger legacy than his five years of machine-building at Leinster. Taking over under-achieving, big city clubs seems to be his speciality, from Dublin to Paris to Sydney. Five of the six Leinster men in the initial Lions squad were given their provincial debuts on Cheika’s watch – also making their Test debuts in his time there.

Faith in the system
“Not vindicated,” he began when asked if that is how he felt, “but proud I was involved in the development of these players and having faith in the system.

“That experience at Leinster is really helping me in what we’re doing here in New South Wales, how to bring a team around and implement a winning attitude and putting back into play some of the old-school values of rugby which maybe in the sanitary (sic) era of professionalism have got lost. I think at Leinster they have got a perfect balance of that now.”

“You only have to look at the way O’Driscoll is playing on this tour to see what type of team they are because they are the leaders. He is still at his best and he’s about 50 now, is he, 51 or 52? He’s still going, strong as an ox. He’s been brilliant. I am proud of being involved with those guys but if the opportunity comes up to cut a few of them down we’ll have a go at it.”

The unfortunate Cian Healy has been lost to the cause while O’Driscoll, Jamie Heaslip and Seán O’Brien played against the Combined Country, to Cheika’s slight irritation, “because I would have liked to have got a chance to get a shot on a few of them, not me personally but I have a few players on the team that could,” he stressed, with a loud laugh.

“Those lads would know that’s the way; that’s what I would have liked them to do when I was coaching them and it would have been a great opportunity for us to clash.”

Cheika has watched Jonny Sexton’s progress with interest. Sexton had a troubled but ultimately rewarding evolution under Cheika, and still credits the latter’s assistant, David Knox, with much of his development.

“He’s going very well,” said Cheika. “The confidence in the player, the way he’s setting up the play, the way he’s carrying the ball in both hands, and keeping the opposition on the back foot. I just think he’s really matured into an excellent footballer and so he deserves it because he’s a competitive bugger and he wants to fight his way to the top, even once he’s at the top. I think we’ll see the best come out of him on this tour.”

Cheika is missing 10 members of the Wallabies’ 31-man squad, as well as another injured half-dozen, but at least the two members of the Australian World Cup Sevens camp, Bernard Foley and Matt Lucas, will be released for this game.

“Foley in particular is essential as our playmaker. That’s good that we’ll have that little bit of extra zip and he’s a bit of X factor as well.”

The Waratahs may not be fully loaded, but if they go down, they’ll go down all guns blazing.

On foot of three turkey shoots and one competitive game to date, a recurring theme amongst the travelling media is the Lions are under-cooked. But if they are, the Wallabies will be done “rare”.

“No, they (the Lions) will be fine. They’re playing games. The Australian team is the team not playing games. I don’t know which is right and which is wrong; I never coached at international level so I wouldn’t know.

“(Robbie) Deans has got his strategy but I don’t think there is any chance of the Lions coming in underdone. They’ve just come in off the back of a full season. Lads have been rested and I think he (Gatland) has done well; he’s got competition for places humming and they’ve got their media machine operating, their publicity machine operating as well,” quipped Cheika regarding the grossly overblown Spygate farrago.

Straight off the paddock from an open training session, in which he strained not to be a part of the defensive maul drill, and with his wife and four young kids amongst the attendance, he’s happy back in his native city and nurturing the Waratahs’ attempted re-birth.

“I didn’t come back to come home: I came back for the lure of the position with NSW. It was an exciting challenge and I’ve enjoyed that immensely. I’m learning a new way to do things. I’ve had a good influence again from Alan Gaffney and Darryl Gibson. It’s helped me evolve my coaching.”

And he helped Leinster and Irish rugby evolve too.