Michael Cheika saunters into the high school hall at Kelvin State College in the Brisbane suburbs looking wonderfully relaxed in a Wallabies polo shirt and jeans.
He greets the travelling Irish media warmly as he reconnects with familiar faces from his Leinster days at the turn of the decade, shoots the breeze with their Aussie counterparts, and then strolls down the aisle through the crowds of waiting teenagers to take his place on the stage with a collection of his players.
These sorts of gigs are part and parcel of a prominent coach’s job — Ireland boss Joe Schmidt makes appearances at several such Irish establishments throughout the year — but this is a potentially tough crowd, a school hall full of students whose first sporting love is rugby league in a city that adores its NRL heroes the Broncos.
A glance at the Australian newspapers underlines the size of the task outside the code’s scattered strongholds. For this is State of Origin week, the first clash in the three-part league showdown between players born in Queensland and New South Wales and it dominates the media as last Tuesday’s Australian, the country’s only national newspaper, attests.
On its broadsheet backpage, Union is shown in its proper context, fourth-ranked behind a League lead story, an AFL offlead, and down-page cricket piece before the eye scans to the bottom-right corner and a couple of hundred words devoted to Will Genia’s thoughts on the imminent Test series with Ireland.
Such is life but Cheika happily goes to work at a school which has recently introduced a Union sevens programme to its sporting excellence programme. He strides to the podium and starts his address, telling his audience about the privilege and excitement of playing at Suncorp Stadium this morning.
He reminds them what the Wallabies stand for, “making sure that we represent you when we run out there in the gold jersey. We’re representing all of you, all of your families, everyone in the crowd and watching on TV, and we hope you feel proud and go ‘wow, I want to be like that guy’ or ‘I want to play in that team’ or ‘I want Australia to play like that, I love it.’
“And enjoy ourselves as well because that’s what sport is all about. If I was to give you one piece of advice for playing any number of the excellent sports here, that would be it. No matter how serious anyone wants to get, make sure you keep enjoying yourselves.”
Cheika is as comfortable in this setting as he is in a press conference or on the training field. The volcanic eruptions for which he is noted during and after games seem a mile away from this persona as he opens the floor to questions.
“Hands up! Who wants to ask me questions? Right there, you’d be good in an auction son.” The questioner wastes little time in getting to the heart of what has been on this Queensland schoolboy’s mind. “Who do you go for when Queensland play New South Wales?” the teenager asks Cheika to giggles from his schoolmates.
“Ooooh,” comes the reply. “Straight to the core!”
He comes from New South Wales, but Cheika deflects the question in masterly fashion.
“When we’re with the Wallabies we don’t have a home ground, we play here in Brisbane, in Sydney, in Canberra, in Perth, in Melbourne, and when we run out in Suncorp we’re all Queenslanders, no matter where we’re from, and we’re all Australians. When you put on the gold jersey, everyone comes together.”
His work done, Cheika turns to the day job, getting the Wallabies winning and putting his case to the media. Since guiding them against expectations to the 2015 World Cup final, he has undertaken a considerable overhaul of personnel, with the result that he has a solid backbone of 11 veterans of that defeat to the All Blacks at Twickenham three years ago.
The rest have all been capped since and as a three-Test series with Ireland looms, Cheika feels the time may be right to end the experiments that have seen the Wallabies struggle for consistency over the past two seasons.
“This is Test footy, you’ve got to win. Every game. Over the last couple of years we’ve done a lot of development. We’ve had 26, 27 debutants. We’ve done this on purpose and we’ve taken some risks in that way because you’re always playing against great opposition.
“Now I think we can start narrowing in on what our group is, getting them the games and you’ll see this year there’ll be significantly less debutants. There’s still a couple that are pushing through and next year there might be a couple, only a couple realistically, but get more experience, lift the cap level up, lift the age level up but at the same time, every time we run out in that gold jersey we’re representing Australia and that means that the country is waking up the next day feeling how well we’ve performed, my own kids included.
“So that demands maximum performance. And then with that I believe we can win. It’s a good opportunity for us to build a new look for the game as a whole and make sure the Wallabies are what people think about when they think about rugby in Australia and maybe not some of the other stuff that’s going on.”
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