Michael Cheika still adores Johnny Sexton and the Leinster veterans he coached to a Heineken Cup victory in 2009 but the love-in with a player he calls “the maestro” will have to go on hold tomorrow as Australia attempt to close out their Test series with Ireland.
The Wallabies head coach named an unchanged matchday squad from the 23 who won the opening Test 18-9 in Brisbane last Saturday while opposite number Joe Schmidt has recalled a number of Leinster’s double winners for Ireland’s must-win game at AAMI Park, including fly-half Sexton.
Cheika, though, believes the inside track on players he coached but now faces works both ways.
“It helps me, it helps them. They know me as well. It’s funny, because there are not many teams we play against where you have mates in the other team,” Cheika said.
“We have very strong connections, very strong ties, myself and those players. I feel it, very strongly. I love those blokes but I just love my blokes more, you know what I mean? That’s the way it is, that’s what is good fun about playing these games.
“There is a common thread there and I am sure it is going to be great fun on Saturday night.”
With Sexton starting in place of Joey Carbery, whom he replaced on 56 minutes last weekend, Cheika believes Ireland have recalled a masterful playmaker as they go in search of the series leveller.
“He is the maestro. He is running the show, he is in charge and directing traffic all the time. He is a great competitor and he is a great defensive player. Everyone talks about his attack, he is a great defensive player as well.
“He has a great kicking game too. So we have got to be aware. We can’t look at him in particular, because if you start looking at him you will miss out on someone else.
"The way we can try to deal with that is to try to be connected ourselves, and bring a lot of speed in getting ready to play.
“Speed and awareness of what they’re going to bring and then the same when we have the ball, speed and awareness to be ready for the next thing to happen in the game. Because you just never know what’s going to happen out there.”
The Australia boss saw the funny side of suggestions his side may target Sexton physically, as the Ireland fly-half suggested had been the case when he played for the British & Irish Lions against Cheika’s Waratahs in Sydney in 2013.
“Ha, I saw what Johnny said about the game against the Lions with the ‘Tahs. We just need to play our (game). If we start going out of the line trying to do that stuff, we will get picked off, so easily.
"A good defence is about being connected. When you do have the opportunity to go with linespeed you all go together. Because he is smart enough to pick you off otherwise. And he is one of the toughest roosters out there.”
Cheika read with interest the thoughts of Ireland defence coach Andy Farrell who said he would learn a lot about his players by the way they responded to last week’s defeat.
“I’ve been a little bit surprised actually, because I’ve seen a couple of their coaches talking about they’ll see where the ticker is or they’ll get up for it now because of that. I thought they were pretty good last week.
“The physicality they brought to the game and the intensity they brought to the game was immense. You can’t have a physical game without two teams bringing it.
"I was a little bit surprised that they’ve been saying the bear was poked, because I thought they gave it to us as much as we got stuck in last week.
"I’m sure they’ll bring a lot of intensity to the game but they’re always going to bring high-quality footy.
"That’s why they’re number two in the world and we’re going to have to lift our game, lift our work ethic to get a foothold.”
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