Cheika’s race against time

Michael Cheika: Felt an outsider. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Nine months. Give or take a few days. That was more or less the time Kitch Christie had to fashion a team of world champions when he took over from Ian McIntosh as Springboks coach in October of 1994.

Michael Cheika has just two months more to repeat that trick with Australia.

Christie’s achievement shows it can be done. So do others besides. Brian Lochore was over the All Blacks for only two years when his side claimed the Webb Ellis in 1987. Rod McQueen had something similar when Australia managed their second in 1999.

Times have changed, however. Lochore had six days to train his Kiwis before that ’87 tournament but the sport has changed and recent history is less supportive of the idea Cheika and Australia can conquer the world after less than a year together.

The last three World Cup-winning head coaches were all in place for a full four-year cycle. Clive Woodward had six years under his belt by 2003 and Graham Henry was scratching a seven-year itch by the time New Zealand doubled up in 2011.

Joe Schmidt has spoken before about how few matches there are to play before the World Cup — Ireland currently have 10 to go — yet Cheika has just half-a-dozen more games on top of the three so far to mould his side into the shape he desires.

“Every week is a test ‘per se’ and it varies,” said the Wallaby coach. “I’m understanding it a bit better, knowing what’s required, and I’ve more of a handle on what the picture is going into next season and the World Cup. I’m learning quickly on the job and I’m formulating a plan.”

It’s not like he had an inkling this was coming either.

Cheika was happily billeted with the New South Wales Waratahs when his friend Ewen McKenzie stepped down as Australia manager in the wake of the Kurtley Beale controversy, leaving the team in disarray shortly before their European tour.

The former Leinster coach was a self-proclaimed outsider whose determination to see life differently as a young player when he divided his time between Europe and home had probably cost him a senior Test cap. But his rich tapestry of experiences from Italy, France, Ireland and Sydney has brought him an even bigger honour in the long run.

“I would never have thought what happened was going to happen. I always saw myself as a bit of an outsider from the establishment, you know? Even when that did happen [with McKenzie resigning] I didn’t think they were going to ask me. When they did you can’t say no.”

Things happened quickly once he signed on.

Cheika was only officially appointed and the squad named a week before the party was due to fly out for London, but Australia have remained competitive through many an off-field crisis before and this has been no different.

The Barbarians and Wales were both dispatched and France almost beaten despite a discernible dip in performance. Physicality has been bumped up the list of priorities. So, too, the importance of wearing that famous gold ‘jumper’.

Cheika is blessed with a bumper hand, particularly in a back line littered with versatile talents, although their horde of riches in the back row may be equally glittering and more important in the long run.

Injuries to the likes of David Pocock and others left back in Oz mean Cheika will have just four games to build a relationship with key people, but the strength in depth is evident in the bench he has chosen for today.

Quade Cooper. Will Genia. James Horwill. These are world-class operators that the Wallabies can turn to should they be required today or in the future, even if Cheika is adamant the team he starts is no weaker for the stars sitting on the bench.

“As always, we try to get best possible side. We haven’t weakened the team at all, it’s about doing the best job.”

And in the shortest time frame imaginable.


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