Lebanese roots keep things in perspective for Michael Cheika

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“In the times I’ve been there, and I’ve been there many times, that’s always been the way the locals have treated me.” Photo: William West/AFP/Getty Image

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With both of his parents coming from north Lebanon, Michael Cheika has always been proud of his roots and, as a Unicef ambassador for Lebanon in Australia, he has often returned to his parents’ homeland. One particular visit stands out.

In the summer of 2006 just before pre-season in his second campaign with Leinster, he went there for a funeral. On the day he was due to leave, the 2006 Lebanon War broke out, when the Israeli Army retaliated for an air strike by the Hezbollah with several of their own.

“At first I couldn’t get out. I think it took a month for expats to get shipped out eventually. But I had a driver and I eventually got to Damascus in Syria, which was before the conflict there, and I remember Denis Hickie giving me a ring. He knew I was in Damascus and he was with Shane (Horgan).”

“He said: ‘Listen, we’ve lost a few coaches over the last few years but we never imagined we’d lose one in a war zone. So make sure you get back here’.”

Cheika has watched the events which have unfolded following the Beirut blast which has killed over 200 people, left thousands homeless, caused billions of dollars’ worth of damage and exposed the infighting, incompetence and corruption of a political system which threatens to leave anywhere between 50 and 80 per cent of its population living below the poverty line.

“They’ve had so many trials and tribulations over the years but what’s happened there recently has shone a light for a lot of the world, both at a political level and a human level, even with the global crisis economically and with the health pandemic, those people are having it extremely tough.

“The economic crisis right now in Lebanon dictates that even if you’ve got money you can only get US$100 every month out of your bank account.

“As well as Unicef, there are a lot of good charities. I think looking after kids is what it’s all about, whether it’s on the footy field or in general life. I think the Australian people have been unbelievably charitable and generous, in a time of difficulty for themselves, in the last week or two.”

In hindsight the blast seems like a tragedy which was just waiting to happen.

“It just shows you how vulnerable the country is and it can be from a lot of angles. Besides not having some of the basic comforts of the western world, imagine living in a place that can be a tinder box for many different regions, economically or militarily. Even the basics of health and education and security, all the things we’re taking for granted, they’re living without. And they’re still managing to have a smile on their faces in the middle.

“In the times I’ve been there, and I’ve been there many times, that’s always been the way the locals have treated me. I just hope that now some of the countries around the world will support Lebanon a little bit more.”

Sugar cane

His dad Joe came over to Sydney in 1950, landing with “not much at all” in his pocket according to Cheika at a time when the Australian government was looking for workers, and the strong Lebanese community dates back to the 1800s when Lebanese emigrants worked in the sugar cane fields in northern Australian. The response, both to charities and in having a minute’s silence before games, makes him proud of Australia.

Cheika Snr initially worked on the railways before eventually owning his own export/import company and became an advisor on trade for the Australian government. “That’s the great opportunity that Australia can give you. You can come here and if you work hard you can succeed, that’s why it’s a beautiful country.”

His mum, Therese, came from the same village. “After dad went over he never saw his parents again, so when my mum came she brought him a letter from Dad’s parents (in 1960). I wouldn’t be surprised if his dad suggested he might take her out on a date, which I think is what happened in the end,” recalls Cheika cheerily. “Fate’s a great thing.”

A helicopter drops water on smoldering buildings in Beirut, destroyed by an explosion a day earlier. Photo: Marwan Tahtah/Getty Images
A helicopter drops water on smoldering buildings in Beirut, destroyed by an explosion a day earlier. Photo: Marwan Tahtah/Getty Images

They had three kids, Paul, Michael and Carol. His Dad passed away nearly 18 years ago but his mum is “still going strong”. Cheika and his wife Stephanie have four children, Sy (11), the twins Mattias and Lucia (10), and Carlos (seven).

Cheika did return in time for pre-season in advance of his second of five campaigns as Leinster head coach in what would prove a seminal tenure. As Leinster and Munster crank up preparations for the latest instalment in their rivalry next Saturday, he took a FaceTime call at the SCG in Sydney on Thursday night prior to the Roosters – the rugby league coach he is now assisting on a part-time basis – taking on the Storm.

“It’s been a tough and attritional schedule, and the new rules have meant that there’s more ball in play time,” Cheika says. “But the NRL has done a great job in getting the competition running. It’s given a lot of Aussies an outlet during Covid.”

As it transpired, the Storm suffered injuries to three key players in a 24-6 defeat. In normal NRL Premiership seasons the teams play 26 rounds but with weekends off built into the schedule. This season they are playing on 20 consecutive weeks. That said, Cheika says he’s getting “heaps” from the experience after his first break from coaching in 20 years.

“I’ve taken the opportunity to do some investment in myself and get ready for whatever comes next, whether it be in sport or in business.”

During those five seasons from 2005-06, he oversaw Leinster in 13 derbies against Munster, winning eight, losing five.

“Not bad against them.”

In the preceding 22 meetings, Munster had won 15 and Leinster five, with two drawn, so his time marked quite a shift in the balance of power during the move to the RDS.

Seminal

At first, Cheika was particularly taken aback to discover that many in the province outside Dublin supported Munster at the time, and spoke regularly to the team about repatriating those supporters. He cites the ensuing and seminal Heineken Cup semi-finals at the old Lansdowne Road and Croke Park in 2006 and 2009.

“You compare the red and blue of those two games, I think we achieved that.”

Even so, when he pitched up in Dublin with David Knox as his assistant, he concedes: “I didn’t know a lot about the rivalry to be honest when I first came over. So I had to acquaint myself pretty quickly with some of the history. We were playing them regularly, so I figured if we could get close to those guys we’d be somewhere near the top of the tree.”

His first experience was just five games into the 2005-06 season, a 33-9, five tries to nil roasting in Musgrave Park.

“I think the grass was up to my knees, if you know what I mean. They didn’t want to have any running game down there whatsoever,” he says, chuckling.

“Getting pumped like that in the first game was good for me personally. It made me get ready for what I knew we needed to do going forward.”

Leinster avenged that defeat with a 35-23 New Year’s Eve win at a jam-packed RDS, when Felipe Contepomi scored 25 points, and celebrated his second opportunistic tries by jumping onto the perimeter fencing.

“Usually the ball ends up in the crowd – we had a player who ended up in the crowd! He was big for us that day. When we played Munster we always wanted to play attacking football. We knew we were way behind as far as reputations were concerned so we had to play with our own identity to make sure there was a real distinction. If we were going to get there we had to get there our way.”

Paul O’Connell, Cheika and Leo Cullen ahead of the 2009/10 Heineken Cup. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Paul O’Connell, Cheika and Leo Cullen ahead of the 2009/10 Heineken Cup. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Cue semi-final number one.

True to creating that distinctive identity, Leinster recorded a thrilling 41-35 quarter-final win over Toulouse while Munster had won an arm wrestle against Perpignan.

“There were a couple of things that had scarred the team a little bit. Munster were one and Leicester were another one from a quarter-final game the year before. Even though we had that great win (over Toulouse) we were still up and down - no consistency at that stage. But your greatest victories come from your defeats, I think there’s no greater example of that.”

For Cheika, the biggest lesson from that game was learning to cope with what he calls “the distractions” better, be it the heightened media build-up, demand for tickets or expectations from supporters. Cheika kept notes from that game which, with that in mind, proved valuable three years later.

In October of Cheika’s second season, Leinster welcomed the newly crowned European champions to Lansdowne Road again in the Magners League and beat them 27-20. Brian O’Driscoll scored two of their four tries in a bonus point win.

“We put a marker down on our territory there after what had happened in the semi-final. A lot of it is emotional. You want to get over those emotions, because I knew somewhere down the road we were going to meet them in one of those big games again because of the quality they had, and we needed to be ready for that.”

However, in Cheika’s first taste of the Thomond Park over the festive period, Munster won 25-11 after Leinster led at half-time. But in October of the following season, Leinster won 10-3 in Musgrave Park, their first win there since 1985.

“Terrible weather,” Cheika recalls immediately. “It meant a lot to me that win. We would never have been expected to win and I think our players may have expected to lose in the past.”

Whereas Munster would advance all the way to a second European triumph in three seasons, Leinster went out in the pool stages, but they welcomed their old adversaries to a packed RDS in April.

Bountiful silverware

Johnny Sexton’s penalty secured a key win en route to the title on a scoreline of 21-12 after six earlier penalties by Contepomi. It was Leinster’s first trophy since the inaugural Celtic League win when beating Munster in the final under Matt Williams, a far cry but these years of bountiful silverware.

“It was a huge stepping stone for us. Every time we beat Munster it helped our guys with their self-belief, because of what it meant in the overall picture.”

Yet by the time they met in their second Heineken Cup semi-final in May 2009, Munster had completed a league double, winning 18-0 at the RDS in September and 22-5 in front of a full house at Thomond Park over Christmas.

“The first one we weren’t ready for that intensity at all,” recalls Cheika, who had just signed Isa Nacewa, Rocky Elsom and CJ van der Linde.

“In the second game we knew there was a chance we could be playing them in the semi and as it worked out it sort of set it up nicely for us. They had a whole heap of Lions, including the captain,” says Cheika in reference to Paul O’Connell, one of nine Munster players named in the original Lions squad following their 43-9 filleting of the Ospreys, on the same day that Leinster edged past Harlequins 6-5 in ‘Bloodgate’.

“All the talk was about them so it was really easy for me to prime our guys to be absolutely focused. It wasn’t just that we had a great day or a lucky day. We’d been building for it over a few years but for me in that season it was the loss in Castres that really steadied us. We showed resilience to come back from that because a lot of people were ripping into us.”

One article he still has on his office wall.

“It’s a small piece by a journo after that Castres game mostly saying: ‘Cheika go home, you’re useless. This team can’t win anything.’ Five months later we won Europe. It just shows how you’ve got to hold your nerve in the face of adversity or when things don’t go right for you.”

Cheika, Jonno Gibbes, Alan Gaffney and Kurt McQuilkin with the Heineken Cup trophy in 2009. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Cheika, Jonno Gibbes, Alan Gaffney and Kurt McQuilkin with the Heineken Cup trophy in 2009. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho

A then world record crowd of over 82,000 attended that semi-final in Croke Park.

“The atmosphere was outrageous. I remember walking out on the field with Jono Gibbes and him saying: ‘Mate, what are we even doing here?’ Like, an Aussie and a Kiwi in the middle of this national event! We timed our run really well. We primed them mentally. There was a lot of focus just on the game, not on any of the other things involved. In fact we were able to push a lot of distractions on to them. It was time to take our opportunity.”

Leinster went on beat Leicester in the final to claim their first European crown and he’ll never forget seeing real happiness on the faces of his players in the 30 seconds after the full-time.

“They’d done something they didn’t think they’d ever do. You see guys jumping around in circles like idiots. They don’t know who to hug or who to hang onto. It’s really authentic and genuine. So many things are contrived these days. But that 30 seconds provoked a really good feeling in me which will stay with me forever.”

Leinster completed a treble over Munster in Cheika’s last season, as they backed up a 30-0 win at the RDS with a first win in Thomond Park (by 16-15) since 1995, Kurt McQuilkin’s defence keeping Munster tryless on a raucous night.

Standing taller

Leinster also beat Munster 16-6 in the league semi-finals and another win in Joe Schmidt’s first derby would ensure a fifth in a row, the longest winning sequence in the rivalry’s history.

“I felt in that year they (Munster) approached us in a different way and I think we were sort of standing taller when it came to the games.”

Even so, Cheika accepts that it was the standards set by Munster which, more than anyone else, drove Leinster to what they became and have remained since.

“The Leinster-Munster rivalry has been the one that has been able to keep the traditional elements and bring it into the professional era. It will be very strange for them to run out with no crowd, but I’m sure that people will be making it an event in their home, while watching it on TV.”

He knows enough about his former Wallabies assistant coach Stephen Larkham and Munster’s two World Cup-winning signings, Damien de Allende and RG Snyman to appreciate that Munster will be coming as hard at Leinster as they’ve ever done.

“This is the great thing about this battle. I think if one keeps targeting the other all the time it will keep both teams up towards the top echelons of Europe. That’s the natural order.”

As for himself, he’s always been sanguine about where his coaching career might or might not take him, and that hasn’t changed.

“Some things were the right fit. Like Leinster was the perfect fit for me and I think coaching is very three-dimensional – right person for the right team at the right time. When you get that feeling, you take that opportunity when it comes.”

Still striving, still ambitious and as demanding of himself as ever, in some respects Cheika is the same as he ever was. You’d imagine there’d be the right fit out there soon enough.