No jolly swagman but Cheika has Australia waltzing

  • Rugby
  • Friday, 30 Oct 2015

LONDON (Reuters) - He has not scored any tries, kicked any goals or made a single tackle, but no-one has played a bigger role in getting Australia into Saturday's Rugby World Cup final against New Zealand than Michael Cheika.

In just one year, the Wallabies coach has transformed a divided team that was regularly losing matches to one on the cusp of greatness.

In the process, Cheika has become one of the unwitting stars of the World Cup, fascinating and bemusing people with his combination of liberal and homespun philosophies.

"We’re not all guys who are camped out by the billabong with a cork hat," he explained.

By his own admission, Cheika does not have any secret, magical tricks up his sleeve. He just preaches the virtues of keeping things simple -- hard work, honesty and team spirit.

"Nothing binds a team together mentally more than working hard, sweating a little, spilling a bit of blood together," he said.

When he took over as Australia coach last year following the sudden resignation of Ewen McKenzie, he went back to basics, encouraging the Wallabies to play their natural running game that had served them so well in the past.

Cheika, 48, has also encouraged all his players to think outside the box and embrace all the diverse characters in a team he described as being made up of jokers, lovers and fighters.

At first appearance, Cheika seems like a throwback to a previous era; a stereotypical Australian character who would not have seemed out of place on the set of Crocodile Dundee.

With his thick Aussie drawl, unshaven face and 'she'll-be-right' approach to everything, Cheika has charmed and disarmed everyone at the World Cup.

But his laconic appearance masks a far more complex character and Cheika is anything but your typical rugby coach.

For starters, he spent most of his working life in the women's fashion industry, working in design and building up his own multi-million dollar distribution company.

At each news conference he has attended during the World Cup, he conducts interviews in English, then French. He also speaks Italian and Arabic.

"We’re different people that come together to make our lives better. That’s what Australia’s about," he said.

"In this team, all we want to do is just have some of that in us as well as our own piece to that puzzle, about that identity. Add our own flavour as well and try to add something to it."

Cheika was born in Sydney but his roots are elsewhere. His parents were both migrants from Lebanon who came to Australia in the 1950s in search of a new life.

In his adult life, Cheika has lived and coached in Ireland, France and Italy and is the only coach to have won the European Cup, with Leinster in 2011, and the Super 15 title, with the New South Wales Waratahs last year.

"For me, personally it’s been a very interesting journey since I’ve been involved in this team, of my own nationalism, my own appreciation of Australia," he said.

"Maybe I didn’t’ have it in perspective as much not being involved in anything like it. It puts it into a certain perspective."

Cheika grew up playing for Randwick, one of Sydney's best rugby clubs that has produced dozens of Wallabies. Though he was never capped himself, his iron will and devotion to the cause has become an inspiration to his players.

"He’s got that emotional piece right for the guys," Wallabies flanker Scott Fardy said.

"He really tugs on your emotions before every game, sometimes before training sessions. He's good at that.

"Before every game he gets you going and we’re all looking forward to what he’s got planned this week because he always keeps you on your toes."

(Reporting by Julian Linden; editing by Toby Davis)

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