It was less than 12 months ago that the former Leinster boss took over a Wallabies squad with morale in tatters after the disastrous reign of Ewen Mackenzie had seen a talented squad habitually underachieve, and undermined by poor off-field behaviour.
At Twickenham yesterday in the second semi-final of the weekend, those same players blew an adventurous Argentina away with a two-try opening burst inside the first 10 minutes.
Australia would score four tries, three of them from man of the match Adam Ashley-Cooper, as Argentina failed to score a try their play richly deserved.
So it is Cheika’s Wallabies progress to next Saturday’s decider, where they face their old rivals from across the Tasman, defending champions New Zealand, remarkably for two teams with four titles and six final appearances between them, their first meeting with the Webb Ellis Cup up for grabs to the winner.
“I’m not taking credit,” Cheika said of his team’s turnaround. “It is about players wanting to play. I don’t know if we are turned around, the guys are just playing for each other and want to play for Australia.
“In rugby, the basis is to be committed to your team-mates. We are just going day by day.” “Now I will have to work on what we will do next week. One of the big things we want to bring is honesty. Let’s try our best and be honest with each other and show that with the way we play the game.”
As well as Argentina played, there will be few complaints about Australia’s right to return to Twickenham next weekend. They had scraped through their quarter-final against Scotland the previous Sunday with a last-minute penalty erroneously awarded by Craig Joubert but there was little fortune needed about this performance other than the Puma’s determination to self-destruct inside the opening 10 minutes.
A week on from convincingly dispatching Ireland, Argentina seemed desperate to continue the barnstorming play that undid Irish hopes of reaching a first semi-final.
How Joe Schmidt must have wished they started as poorly against Ireland as they did yesterday, loose passing not once but twice leading to intercepts, the second of which saw fly-half Nicolas Sanchez shovel on to Wallabies lock Rob Simmons to score the opening try after just 75 seconds, converted by Bernard Foley.
Undaunted by the setback Argentina continued to throw the ball around but it was their anxiety to play at a high-tempo that was their undoing. Santiago Cordero’s botched tap and go from a dropout producing a knock-on and Australian scrum that in turn gave Foley the chance to spot Ashley-Cooper out wide on the right and find him with a wonderfully executed long pass to send the wing over the line after nine minutes.
Another conversion put the Wallabies 14-3 in front and Argentina feeling the need to force things with 70 minutes still to play.
It was pulsating stuff, a marked contrast to the previous evening’s tightly-contested collision between the All Blacks and South Africa but no less gripping and though he rued Australia’s dominance at the breakdown, Argentina head coach Daniel Hourcade had no regrets at his team’s expansive gameplan.
“No, I’m completely satisfied. I feel very proud of what the team has achieved,” Hourcade said. “If we played again, I would follow the same plan.”
The Pumas lost two-try scourge of Ireland Juan Imhoff, captain Agustin Creevy and Juan Martin Hernandez to injury and there was a further blow when lock Tomas Lavanini was yellow carded by Wayne Barnes for a no-arms chop tackle on Israel Folau. Yet none of it detracted from the dangers they posed in attack.
Their play in part helped force a high Australian penalty count, seven by half-time, three of which were parlayed into points from the boot of Sanchez but Australia had more firepower and Ashley-Cooper benefited from another beautiful skip pass, this time from Matt Giteau to score in the 32nd minute and leave Argentina trailing 19-9 at the break.
And so it continued into the second half, high-paced play from both sides accompanied by a rising error and penalty count, Sanchez slotting two to Foley’s one from two that brought the Pumas to within seven points of the Wallabies at 22-15.
There was a real sense the next try would decide this encounter and it came in the 72nd minute, too late for Argentina to rescue the situation. A scintillating break from halfway saw Drew Mitchell dart down the left, evading tackles as he navigated cross-field before sending out a loose pass for the unmarked Ashley-Cooper to gather and score in the right corner. Game over.
Foley’s conversion opened up a two-score advantage with seven minutes to go and though Argentina were buried, they were refusing to go quietly. Desperate for a try their play deserved, they played to the bitter end backed by their wonderful supporters, who sang as if theirs was the winning team as the sizeable Australian contingent remained strangely subdued.
“We left the game open which really suited them,” Cheika said. “Initially we kept the game more structured.
“I’m happy with the lads’ defence. They are a very strong, attacking team. They tore Ireland apart last week. We had to work hard to stop them scoring a try.” The Pumas and their fans will be missed but the stage has been set, Twickenham will have to get ready for an Antipodean tussle.
J Tuculet; S Cordero, M Bosch, J M Hernandez (J de la Fuente, 44), J Imhoff (L Amorosino, 18); N Sanchez, M Landajo (T Cubelli, 55); M Ayerza (L Noguera, 61), A Creevy – captain (J Montoya, 30), R Herrera (J Figallo, 61); G Petti (M Alemanno, 57), T Lavanini; P Matera, J Fernandez Lobbe, L Senatore (F Isa, 48).
I Folau (M Toomua, 64); A Ashley-Cooper, T Kuridrani, M Giteau (K Beale, 47), D Mitchell; B Foley, W Genia (N Phipps, 66); J Slipper (T Smith, 53), S Moore – captain (T Polota-Nau, 59), S Kepu (G Holmes, 53); K Douglas, R Simmons (D Mumm, 66); S Fardy (B McCalman, 55-61 & 71), M Hooper, D Pocock.
Wayne Barnes (England).