Cheika working his magic
Published 20/05/2011 | 05:00
Michael Cheika nods disbelievingly. "Did you see Carlton Cole's miss?" West Ham's relegation has just been confirmed and Leinster's Heineken Cup-winning coach is morosely picking at the bones.
In truth, though, he began to care less and less when Gianfranco Zola was escorted from the Hammers' premises. "My support was tested to the limit when they appointed Avram Grant," Cheika confesses.
He wonders who could possibly restore his faith. Chris Hughton has been mooted. "Yeah, he did so well at Newcastle, why did they let him go?" Not much of a name or celebrity, one suggests. Cheika nods knowingly. Reputations aren't easily acquired.
It is nearly six years since Leinster chief executive Mick Dawson announced Michael Cheika as their new coach. "Michael who?" was the immediate reaction from the preponderance of Leinster fans disgruntled by perennial under-achievement, especially within the context of their rivalry with the imminent neighbouring European champions in red.
By 2009, Cheika had delivered the Heineken Cup to his employers and in the eyes of his supporters transformed a once comically unsuccessful franchise into a bona fide European giant.
The thousands of Leinster supporters arriving in Cardiff today could do worse than take a small diversion to the new stadium to cheer on the Australian's new employers, Stade Francais, in their Amlin Challenge Cup joust with Conor O'Shea's Harlequins.
It would repay a small stipend of the massive debt of gratitude to which he is entitled; for a Leinster triumph tomorrow would still retain the firm imprints of the legacy bequeathed by Cheika.
While some of us wondered whether he would ever survive beyond the embarrassing European defeat at Edinburgh in his third season in charge, Cheika was embarking upon a journey that would instil a winning culture at the club.
Winning the Heineken Cup franked those ambitions.
But the challenge of Stade appealed to his competitive nature. Shorn of owner Max Guazzini's millions -- and the bare-breasted dancer who used to entertain the 80,000 crowds in Stade de France -- the two-time Heineken Cup finalists are not even the best team in Paris any more.
A Canadian consortium are due to put together a multi-million rescue package as the authorities prepare to investigate a €4m shortfall in the club's budget this season, a probe which could result in automatic relegation.
Few coaches with regard for their coaching skills would have touched the job with a barge pole; but then, Cheika doesn't necessarily have a high regard for his coaching skills. He has other talents though, specifically those capable of emulating the task he fulfilled at Leinster. It's as if he downplays himself as some kind of troubadour trouble-shooter.
"That's why I came here," he says. "I had that idea in my head that I'd been down this road before. I don't know if I'd be the greatest coach going to a team that's already on fire, I've never had that situation to deal with.
"But a situation like this suits my character a little more, the challenge of having to turn things around. I was going to take a break after Leinster, but then I saw this opportunity."
Cheika knew upon arrival that the money tap was switched off and with a gaggle of players already mentally checking out, led by James Haskell, Stade's season-long battle against relegation was no surprise.
A clear-out will ensue after tonight's final, with some familiar faces -- Stan Wright, Paul Warwick, Byron Kelleher and Felipe Contepomi, perhaps Rocky Elsom -- coming in to aid the transformation in culture.
Some 15 players will come in, while 10 will be shipped out; at Leinster, nine survivors from Cheika's first squad of 36 won Heineken Cup medals. This will not be an overnight sensation.
"Initially, like with Leinster, you have to consolidate a little and make it appealing for players to come here," says Cheika, whose family, wife Stephanie, kids Symon, Lucia and Mattias (twins) are loving life in Paris.
"And then we can take a few risks the following season. With Leinster, we had 36 in the first year and about nine left once we won the Heineken Cup. The change in private ownership is the main challenge. I no longer go through Mick Dawson and him going to the IRFU. Now I go straight to the main man and he has to buy into my agenda."
He had his spats with the IRFU over foreign players but he always understood the twin functions of the Irish system, even if he didn't always appreciate them.
"There's negatives to both systems," he says. "But in fairness, the Union in Ireland must be doing something right. I would have criticised it a lot, but the system is working and you can't argue with their success.
"The politics is going to be a little more radical because there is a lot more at stake for the individual. But it's looking good and we've new investment coming in. So having a European spot would be great."
As much as he'd love to maintain his love affair with the Heineken Cup by winning today, he defers to Quins as favourites. Publicly, at least.
He has no such worries as far as Leinster are concerned tomorrow. Joe Schmidt has added subtly to the foundations created by Cheika and he applauds Leinster for once more being daring in their selection, while distancing himself from any of the plaudits he so undeniably deserves.
"I just wanted to make sure that I could leave a legacy so that when I go back to watch them in a few years, I can be proud, knowing that I was part of building that. Because that was the plan.
"That's why it was important to pick the right time to leave. If I hadn't done what I wanted to do in those five years, well, I wouldn't have deserved to stay on in the first place.
"If we had achieved them, it was the right time to move on and allow someone else with a different mindset to come in and take on a different role. But, as Joe Schmidt will admit, none of it is possible without a good player group. And the players in Leinster have been top notch."
West Ham's decline reminds us that even the best players need direction. Cheika and Leinster transformed their reputations together. Few would bet against him repeating the trick with Stade.