'This is the toughest game on tour' - Cheika among old friends as he looks to finish difficult year on high
Published 22/11/2016 | 02:30
After a rocky year, Michael Cheika is happy to be back on familiar ground.
He is the coach of a winning team again, if only just after a rotated squad saw off a late French surge to beat Les Bleus on Saturday night, while he has returned to a city full of good memories and old friends.
A little over a year ago, he was crowned coach of the year after overcoming a short preparation period to guide the Wallabies to the World Cup final, but 2016 has proven to be a difficult year.
It began with a clean sweep by Eddie Jones' England on home soil and got worse, with back-to-back 20-plus point defeats to New Zealand.
Since then, the former Leinster coach has weathered the storm and Australia have six wins in eight games, but another loss to the All Blacks in Auckland saw him hit out at the local media when the New Zealand Herald mocked him up as a clown on their front-page.
He'll get a warmer welcome in the Irish capital this weekend after visiting another former temporary home in Paris last week.
"I haven't been back to Dublin a lot of times," he said from the side's city centre base yesterday. "In 2014 when we came I was just so rattled about being actually the coach of the team I didn't really get out and do anything. We were staying out of Dublin (in Killiney) so it was not as easy.
"There's a lot of people here who are close to me. I'll try and make the time to catch up with all of them."
His team have played good rugby since arriving in Europe and look the form southern hemisphere team as their season of transition reaches its end.
Although he hasn't yet watched either of Ireland's games against the All Blacks, his coaching ticket have picked apart Joe Schmidt's side. He rested Israel Folau, Michael Hooper and Dane Haylett-Petty for the win over France, benching Stephen Moore and, initially, Bernard Foley (below) in anticipation of the challenge to come. Foley ultimately started, and impressed, after Quade Cooper was ruled out at the last minute.
"It's going to be the toughest game we've had on the tour," he said. "We're three games into our tour, every game has been tough, Ireland have beaten the team that no-one has beaten over the last 18 months or however long it is and then gone close again.
"They won one in South Africa, you can't deny those numbers. I feel I know them more, I know exactly how hard it's going to be at Lansdowne Road.
"We've got a lot of guys that haven't had that experience before. We've had 13 debutants this year so a lot of change in our squad, and we're starting to get our attitude right.
Although there are some names on the Ireland team-sheet that Cheika doesn't recognise after six years away, he praised the collective consistency.
"They've been so consistent. They're always up there, they're always competing in every game," he said. "They went to South Africa, without Johnny (Sexton), won the first game. They were right in the second game and third game. That's not easy. We know it, we got beat there this year and Six Nations; consistent, consistent, and I'd say that's the hallmark of the coach (Joe Schmidt).
"They're consistently high level. They're very well organised, you see it in all of their games.
"They've been the consistent marker across teams in Europe for many years now in terms of quality of play and thinking about the game and how the game should be played.
"I feel like they're getting strong, they're getting a new batch of players in now that seem to be - a lot of names I haven't heard of before.
"So when the names that I knew when I was here are starting to go out of the game and new names are coming in, that's the replenishment of the team but without dropping their standards at all."
By now, Schmidt - who succeeded Cheika at Leinster - will have analysed the Australians to death, looking for ways to pick the World Cup finalists apart. The Wallaby coach takes a much more hands-off approach.
"I haven't actually seen either of the games as yet. That's not my job really," he said. "The other boys have - Stephen Larkham, Nathan (Grey), Mick (Byrne) and Mario (Ledesma); they do all that. I try to concentrate on our team.
"I've seen highlights. They look like they were good encounters. What I can glean from it all is that we've got our work cut out for us because they got closer to them in their two games than we did in the three games. It's going to be a pretty tough battle.
"It's just the way we decide to work. The lads I've got with me coaching, they're really clever - they take the time to look at the opposition. I don't think there's any point in me looking over all the same things, to second guess them? Because I don't trust them?
"I believe in those coaches. Stephen's a head coach, we're banking on him being the next Australian coach, and Nathan I've had from Waratahs and now here and trust him like my brother. Mario the same, Mick has added so much into the team environment. I trust them.
"I've got the odd crazy thing that comes out here or there that I suggest, they usually brush me when I suggest it I want to pay our attention to our lads.
"We've got a lot of guys on tour so we've had anywhere between 36 and 44 players and I want to give as much individual attention to guys. Not just on the field but off the field to make sure that they're in the best possible space to play their best footy.
"This week I've started watching some stuff now and getting a bit of a look but everything is sort of done. It'd all be just refinement.
"There's no right way to do it, it's just the way we choose to do it. I wouldn't have been like that before. Because I've got so many good people with me I feel comfortable to do that."
Although a re-match with England for a possible Grand Slam tour is awaits next week, Cheika won't allow the focus to drift as he looks to come out the other side of rebuilding his squad.
"I've never had to go through a renovation like this or a change like this because in club rugby or provincial rugby you can just buy players or bring a guy in from overseas," he said.
"This is the first experience I've had of saying well, there's change happening and it's got to be done with younger players who are untried at this level and every game is a Test match.
"It's something I've had to learn to do very fast but at the same time it's been very enjoyable that learning, even with some of the pain we took earlier in the year."
Wins over Wales, Scotland and France have helped ease that pain. Finishing strongly would set Cheika up for another successful chapter.