Cheika, Australia's man for the poisoned chalice

  • Rugby
  • Wednesday, 22 Oct 2014

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Michael Cheika, who was appointed Australia coach on Wednesday, is a maverick, forceful and sometimes volatile coach who has never shied away from accepting what others might consider a poisoned chalice.

The 47-year-old has a fervent belief that there is a right and a wrong way to play rugby and is the only man to have coached teams to both Heineken Cup and Super Rugby titles.

It took him four years to transform Leinster from a province in disarray into European champions in 2009 and two years to drag a dysfunctional New South Wales Waratahs outfit to the pinnacle of southern hemisphere rugby.

He will need every ounce of those transformative powers over the next 11 months if he is to turn the Wallabies into genuine contenders for a third World Cup triumph on British soil.

Cheika's teams aspire to play an expansive, attacking game once known as the "Randwick Way" after one of Australia's most successful clubs, which is based in the seaside suburb of Coogee where he grew up the son of Lebanese immigrants.

An uncompromising number eight not afraid to let his fists do the talking at Randwick in the 1980s, Cheika helped lay the platform which allowed the likes of David Campese and the Ella brothers to strut their stuff.

His rugby journey has been anything but a straightforward path from Coogee Oval across Sydney harbour to the offices of the Australian Rugby Union in the leafy North Shore suburb of St Leonards, though.

His playing career took him to France, and possibly cost him the chance to play test rugby, while he started coaching in Italy before leading Paris club Stade Francais for a less successful two years after his stint in Ireland.

He subsequently speaks French and Italian fluently, skills he used to make a small fortune in an unlikely but highly successful foray into the world of high fashion.

He returned to Sydney in 2012 and promised a bit of "old school" coaching when he took over at the Waratahs after a season in which Australia's strongest and wealthiest province had lost eight successive matches and ended up 11th in the 15-team competition.

The ninth place finish in his first season was only a slight improvement but it was with a squad he had inherited and he made a few choice manpower changes for 2014, mainly to beef up the pack.

"It's pretty basic sort of set-up for us forwards, we know what we're doing," Waratahs lock Kane Douglas said in July. "He likes his forwards to get stuck in, get physical and get dirty. Then let the backs do the work out wide."

Nobody who has spent more than a few minutes with Cheika could doubt his enthusiasm for the game but that passion has also got him into trouble.

In April this year, for example, he was handed a suspended six-month ban for abusing a cameraman during a defeat to the Sharks in Durban.

It was by no means a first offence and might have given the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) pause for thought had they not been desperate to replace Ewen McKenzie so quickly.

For his players, though, such incidents only show his commitment. "That just shows his passion for the group and it can't be said enough how important that's been for us," Wallabies and Waratahs winger Rob Horne said earlier this year.

"There's a huge amount of respect for him." Along with the passion goes a forensic attention to detail, exhaustive planning and a fondness for simple benchmarks that allow the players to prove they are buying into the team ethos.

His Waratahs players, for example, line up 10 metres behind the kicker at restarts rather than on the halfway line, giving them further to run but allowing them to build momentum before they contest the ball.

"It's a bit of a symbol," Cheika said after the Waratahs beat the Canterbury Crusaders with a late penalty to win the Super Rugby title in August.

"It says we're prepared to run 10 metres to gain 10 centimetres at the other end if it's going to help us catch a ball off a kickoff.

"It's those small things and the persistence in what we're doing that I think shows real good character."

At the Waratahs, he also got backline players who perhaps had become too concerned about potential brickbats to give full rein to their attacking instincts.

"I hope they feel free to play without worrying about the consequences because I don't want the team to worry about losing," Cheika said earlier this year.

"I want them to think about what we're going to do to win."

(Editing by Ian Ransom)

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