Michael Cheika has what it takes to change perception of Australia
Alan Quinlan believes the former Leinster coach does not take any prisoners in quest for success
Australia coach Michael Cheika before the autumn Test against Wales at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff.
The first time I met Michael Cheika, I had a row with him. We played Leinster in a Pro 12 game at Lansdowne Road in 2006, a few months after we’d beaten them in the Heineken Cup semi-final. I started the game but I had to come off with a hamstring injury after only 10 minutes.
As we went down the tunnel to go to the dressingrooms, I could see Cheika giving the referee Simon McDowell an earful. Two Leinster players had been sin binned in the first half and Cheika was having a real go off McDowell. I was heading on down to our dressingroom but for a bit of mischief I decided to stop and get involved. It wasn’t just mischief – we couldn’t have him exerting too much influence on the ref either.
So I told him he should maybe calm down there a small bit. I didn’t know him at all at the time but it was worth seeing how he might react. It didn’t go down too well. He turned his guns on me and told me where to go so I had a bit of a go back. It was all over in a few seconds but I remember coming away thinking that this guy was (a) a bit mad, (b) fairly aggressive and, (c) exactly what Leinster needed.
I knew a lot of the Leinster players pretty well and I knew they were tough, hard men individually. But they hadn’t shown it collectively. They’d been through four coaches in four years and something had been lost. It had got to the point where it didn’t matter that there was some strength of character in that squad – perception was reality to some extent.
For the job he was brought in to do, Cheika had a lot of things going for him. It wasn’t just that he was foreign – a few of the guys he followed were foreign too. It was more that coaching rugby wasn’t the be-all and end-all for him at the time. He had been involved in the fashion business and had made a good living out of it.
What it meant was he didn’t have to bow to anyone. He didn’t have to be popular. He didn’t worry about what the IRFU thought of him or what his next career move was going to be. He didn’t have to mind himself politically. I’m not saying he didn’t care how it turned out for him at Leinster, far from it. But he could be as tough and abrasive as he liked without worrying about who he annoyed.
Leinster became a tougher proposition under him, no doubt about it. He was constantly on to referees, he was often looking to start rows in the media. He targeted us as their biggest rivals, aiming to establish Leinster as the top Irish province. It’s not that they never won against us before he arrived – I think the head-to-head was probably fairly equal around then. But we would still have seen ourselves as being well able for them when push came to shove.
He was hard on his players. Stories would come back of him running them up and down Killiney Hill. I know there were some players who got squeezed out who felt they were treated harshly but that was the regime he came in to run. You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.
But he would defend his players to the hilt. That’s all he was doing with Simon McDowell that night in Lansdowne. They had two players binned but as far as he was concerned, it was us who were offside all the time. Whether he was right or wrong – and Marcus Horan got a yellow card two minutes after half-time so maybe he had a point – he was just standing up for his team.
He always did. Mark Robson told me a great story about a game he was commentating on in the Heineken Cup. Leinster were playing Agen and even though they were winning easily enough they’d been pushed around in a few scrums. So Robson wondered out loud – “Is it really possible for a team whose scrum is under so much pressure to win a Heineken Cup?”
Leinster won the game but somewhere along the way over the following couple of weeks, Cheika got to hear the scrum reference from the TV commentary. He decided this was over the top and he was going to do something about it. So when he spotted Robson in the TV commentary box at a Pro 12 game soon after, he saw his chance.
As soon as the final whistle went, Robson put down his microphone and turned to Cheika. “We have a problem here Michael, don’t we?” he said. “Yes mate, we do,” said Cheika. And the two of them talked it out there and then.
It got quite animated but they ended up shaking hands at the end of it and becoming quite friendly in time. A year later, Cheika helped Robson’s nephew get fixed up with Randwick when he went to Australia to play rugby. Mark told me he respected that loyalty to his players and that determination to defend them against detractors.
This was the thing about him. There was always more to him than just being a tough guy and throwing his weight around the place. From that first day that we had the row, I respected him. But as the years went by, I got to like him too.
I admired what he turned Leinster into. Our games with them really ratcheted up in intensity. Big decisions didn’t faze him at all. As the years went by, he was never slow to move on coaches like David Knox and Mike Brewer if they weren’t up to what he needed. He liked to be intimidating. It didn’t hurt that he was a big guy physically.
But however hot-headed he might have been, I always found there was a decency about him. He always shook hands after a game and once the final whistle went, he left it behind him. That appealed to me obviously because I was sometimes a lunatic on the pitch and I was always hoping people wouldn’t hold it against me afterwards. Cheika had a red mist that engulfed him on matchdays and I could identify with that.
I really appreciated that. I knew deep down it wasn’t going to make any great difference because the disciplinary procedure was removed from the teams involved. But I felt he was genuinely hopeful nothing would come of it. I remember thinking this was the same guy I’d gone toe-to-toe with five seconds after meeting him for the first time.
He has gone on to greater things in the years since. Even though things didn’t work out great at Stade Francais, his success with the Waratahs shows the force of personality has obviously taken him a long way. The Australia job has probably come his way a bit earlier than he thought it would but the problems and controversies surrounding the Wallabies make him the obvious choice.
It’s not the same as when he went to Leinster but there are parallels. Obviously there are hard workers and model professionals in that Australia squad but the perception is there’s been too much off-field shenanigans. And just like with Leinster a decade ago, perception is reality. Cheika is there to change that perception. There’s so many really talented guys who can play for Australia but when you’re not going to get too far when you have the likes of Kurtley Beale and James O’Connor becoming better known for off-field stuff. Right or wrong, Cheika is seen as a guy who can come in and crack the whip and get his team ready for the World Cup.
The evidence so far says that he is capable of doing that.