Australian coach Michael Cheika, who attempts to mastermind England’s downfall at Twickenham tonight, became a millionaire in fashion distribution, but insists rugby is a passion and not a job...
MICHAEL CHEIKA always loves a scrap and beckons on a new challenge. Yet even the Wallabies coach could have been forgiven for finding it a mite difficult to be playing the role of English rugby’s potential public enemy number one this week, the bogeyman with the capability of destroying a national sporting dream.
Of course, he looked the part of a good Bond villain. Big, burly, unshaven — Gold’ngreenfinger, perhaps — and we all know about him being hard as nails, quick to a fight and as hot-headed as a chilli farmer.
Yet the wonderful thing about Cheika is that he is a bundle of contradictions. What you see is not necessarily what you get. As years ago, Australia’s leading dress designer Colette Dinnigan found out when she was interviewing him for a job as her business manager.
She saw only a big hairy number eight at the lunch table but was quickly won over by his eloquence, intelligence and charm. Multi- lingual charm at that, as they conversed in Italian and French.
As a millionaire who went on to make his money in fashion distribution, financially Cheika does not need rugby and yet everything he does while turning under-achieving teams - from Leinster to the Waratahs and now the Wallabies - into champions screams of a man who needs this sporting fix badly. It’s still his passion, he says, not a job.
Yet this was a week to keep that passion under wraps, in public at least. So what we got from the man trying to mastermind the downfall of the hosts at their own rugby party at Twickenham tonight was just the model of charming deflection, a bomb disposal expert delicately defusing every barbed question hurled his way.
For instance, did he think England getting knocked out would be bad for the tournament? To this gloriously loaded question, one of the brightest individuals at this whole tournament just played dumb, passing himself off with a twinkle in his eye as “aw, mate….that’s not my domain, I’m just a simple old coach”. No provocation, no Campo-style wind-ups, he has given England no ammunition, nothing.
Yet behind the scenes at their training at Dulwich College this week, it is a pretty fair bet that Cheika has been pouring all that considerable combustible, emotional energy into his players.
For if he is not yet the best coach in rugby - and he just might be already after a career which has already seen him become the only man ever to mould champion teams in both the major club championships of the Northern and Southern hemispheres - then who is a better motivator of rugby men than him?
Cheika will try all sorts of psychological ploys to make his men more than just better players. He wants them to be better men too, more confident in themselves off the pitch and willing to take more responsibility for their actions. Honesty and solidarity are his keywords.
So it was that when he took the reins of the Waratahs, he would sit a couple of players down on the “couch of truth” in the team office where, cajoled by Cheika, they would open up and reveal things about themselves to the rest of the team that they had never admitted to before.
Wycliff Palu, the grand old No 8 who had to withdraw from the squad through injury this week, remembers how team members were then given individual projects to push them out of their comfort zones. It could be something as simple as his task: walking up the hill to training instead of catching the train. It kept him honest, reckoned Palu, at a time when he was getting complacent.
Cheika loves what seem eccentric little incentives. He would bring cowbells, the instruments rung by fans of the Waratahs’ most physical rivals, the Chiefs, and would allow his players to ring them only if they produced a performance which he felt worthy. After one emphatic performance when they all looked forward to a group bell- ringing session, Cheika said they hadn’t played well enough.
Cue deflation all round. It all sounds daft but players became determined to ring those darned bells.
Then there were the golf clubs. Inspired by having watched a Tiger Woods video and impressed by how the great golfer would hold nothing back in his swing, he bought 25 rubbish old drivers from a bemused club shop pro, had them inscribed personally with a metal plaque bearing the name of a different woman and presented one to each player before the Super Rugby final against the Crusaders.
The message was simple and symbolic. Swing those clubs and leave nothing behind. Keep attacking, hold nothing back until the end. Result? The Waratahs kept pushing forward, only to triumph with practically the last kick of the match.
Sometimes, laughed Palu, it was as if Cheika had them all in his own Hollywood movie, as if he was reprising Al Pacino in Any Given Sunday.
When he took the Wallabies’ reins last October on his terms and amid a few dissenting voices who felt he was too much of an independent maverick, his task was just as it had been with Leinster and the Waratahs, to enliven and reinstill vigour to a depressed, sleepy giant.
The Wallabies were near rock bottom, having lost three games in a month and their coach Ewen McKenzie having quit amid a lurid texting scandal involving leading player Kurtley Beale.
Eleven months on, they have won six out of their last seven tests, lifted the Rugby Championship for the first time in four years and, while discovering new dynamism up front with the appointment of wily old Argentine hooker Mario Ledesma as scrum coach, they have been playing a brand of committed, attacking, inventive rugby - proper Wallaby rugby.
Unlike England coach Stuart Lancaster, who could find no room for Danny Cipriani, Cheika has dared to dare with his mavericks, forgiving Beale and Quade Cooper for indiscretions and forging a spirit where, he says, “sweating together and bleeding together” is producing a team designed to make Australia proud again.
Cheika is the first to admit his Mediterranean temperament means the lid sometimes blows off his hot head and he’ll do something he regrets — like his abuse aimed at a photographer during a match in South Africa — but the other side of him is the caring, compassionate dad of four.
And at the heart of his success are rare man management skills. It was designer Dinnigan who noted in an interview with The Australian that she recognised transferable qualities in this son of working-class Lebanese immigrants that would make him a success in anything he turned his hand to.
“He has the most amazing disposition and demeanour,” she enthused. “The way he manages people is incredible. A lot of people saw it as chalk and cheese. Very elegant clothes and this big, burly rugby player. His disposition was very gentle and he was very kind and considerate.
“Michael can also be quite intimidating, too. He is quite forceful. He is very driven. But no one has walked away without respecting him. He is like a gentle giant.” His players seem to love the gentle giant even if they might dispute the ‘gentle bit’.
A broad smile emerged from somewhere beneath the bushy beard of flanker Scott Fardy, the ‘third man’ in their vaunted back row starring jackals-in-chief David Pocock and Michael Hooper, when I asked him this week what life was like in the Cheika regime.
“He never does anything normal, you never know what to expect from him next,” Fardy said. “He keeps you on your toes and he works the emotional stuff really well and gets us going. Our time under him has been really enjoyable.”
Perhaps what makes Cheika happier than anything else is the idea that he has brought back some respect and a few smiles to Wallaby rugby again “although I’m sure the players want to rip off my head at times.”
It is what makes him so dangerous to England tonight. A team now almost suffocating under the pressure of national expectation faces one given freedom to express itself by a coach of real intelligence and independent means, someone just that bit different.
England expects but Cheika’s philosophy is simply: “I don’t expect anything. Expectation only leads to regret.”
Mate, a nation has been warned in the nicest possible way.
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