I met Michael Cheika for the first time in 2005.
He had just replaced Declan Kidney as Leinster’s fourth coach in as many years, and had big hopes and ambitions for where the province could go under his leadership.
His optimism was as surprising as it was welcome. After all, this was his first appointment coaching a full-time squad and confidence levels within the squad were at an all-time low.
He had been a player that was famous for his toughness rather than natural talent and was well know in Sydney club competition as a dogged competitor. He hadn’t played for Australia but had gained valuable experience in Europe with playing stints in Castres and in Italy.
Few could have imagined the impact he would have on the province during his five years at the helm.
Leinster players were changing in the cars when he started the job while training venues could change at the last second at the whim of a club groundsman.
Cheika pushed the Leinster Branch to invest in state-of-the-art training facilities and pitches that were our own. He was a very smart recruiter too, and was responsible for signing the likes of Isa Nacewa, Rocky Elsom, CJ Van Der Linde, Stan Wright and Richardt Strauss.
Cheika set about breaking that ‘soft mentality’ that plagued Leinster for so long and preached the mantra that ‘Hard Combat Equals Easy Match’.
His pre-season training was certainly the toughest any of us had ever faced and he brought us to Killiney Hill for gruelling stamina sessions up to three times a week until he was happy players were fit enough and more importantly, hungry enough, to dig deep when required.
He is a coach who likes to play a high tempo running game but he certainly also believes that rugby games at the highest level are won by the teams that dominate up front and win collisions. Tactically he is astute although I think Schmidt is definitely more hands on in terms of on-pitch coaching.
After Leinster, Cheika went to Stade Francais and tried to break up an under-performing dressing room. Stade were in financial difficulty while the players weren’t willing to change their ways and they effectively ousted him by giving an ultimatum to their president. The Stade president has since stated that he regrets not giving Cheika more time to finish the project.
Cheika’s departure from Paris gave him the opportunity to move home to Sydney and try and turn around the star-studded but consistently under-performing New South Wales Waratahs. He led them to their first Rugby Trophy in September in just his second season.
Players spoke very highly of his leadership and his influence in their transformation and it was widely accepted that he would be the next Wallaby coach at the end of Ewen McKenzie’s reign.
That job came sooner than expected and now Cheika is in a race against time to find his feet before the Rugby World Cup.
The great thing Cheika has on his side is that he has the trust of the Waratahs players who backbone the national side.
He was able to get the best out of Kurtley Beale this season and its noticeable that Beale was never once in trouble in the Waratahs environment. This Wallaby squad is full of talent but in recent times have made the headlines for off-field issues. A year ago McKenzie was forced to drop a handful of players for breaking a curfew in Dublin. I doubt that will happen on Cheika’s watch.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved