Friday 22 September 2017

How Cheika put the Munster into Leinster

David Kelly analyses how the Aussie coach has transformed his side into European heavyweights.

"His pro-active nurturing of the up-and-coming talent in our Academy, coupled with the success of his signings in the transfer market, have helped Leinster become a more consistent force in both our domestic competition and in Europe and the province has benefited greatly from his leadership. Michael has instilled a culture of consistency, discipline and honesty and I have no doubt that he will bring these key principles to his new role."

Michael Dawson, Leinster CEO, speaking after the announcement of Michael Cheika's decision to join Stade Francais next season

FROM couture to culture, the man once known as 'Michael who?' when unveiled by Leinster chiefs in the late summer of 2005, has wrought an almost unrecognisable transformation in the province's fortunes during his five years in charge.

He will leave for Paris this summer, but not to return to the fashion business. Such is his reputation now in the global game, French giants Stade Francais see Cheika as the missing link in their ambitions to become kings of Europe.

That reputation has been singularly forged during his five-year stint in Leinster.

Throughout this period, the project didn't always look as if it was on the right track and notable speed bumps along the way -- the infamous Lansdowne Road defeat against fierce rivals Munster, embarrassingly premature Heineken Cup exits, wildly inconsistent League form -- undermined Cheika's determined vision.

Even this week, Connacht's raucous win in the west against the near full-strength champions of Europe, which bore all the hallmarks of a stunning derby upset to the wider population, reminded the grizzled of Oz of just how fragile the foundations he did so much to create are.

"It's not the right attitude and I feel like I've failed in that regard with Leinster in a way," he lashed out after the stunning defeat for his side in the Galway Sportsground on Wednesday night.

In mitigation, Leinster's proclivity to offer up results like this one has been exponentially reduced during Cheika's time of quiet revolution, although his side didn't quite adhere to a promise made after a similar defeat to Cardiff three years ago, "to never lose to a bottom-table team again".

Still, it is this indefatigable winning spirit which has propelled Cheika and his oft-quoted "organisation" to the pinnacle of European achievement and, Wednesday's blip aside, towards the brink of an unprecedented Magners League/Heineken Cup double.

On the field, the growth has been astounding. Cheika has presided over a period in which Leinster have (last autumn) belatedly overtaken Munster in donating more players to the Irish squad.

Despite being often maligned for discriminating against Irish players, last evening in Glasgow's Firhill, he sent out an entirely Irish-qualified first-team squad -- all the starting XV and replacements -- an unprecedented development in the domestic game.

Off the field, Leinster have made the RDS their home and mobilised a travelling support to rival the famous red army, while the coaching and training structures have been over-hauled.

Cheika himself has changed during his time here. Initially an over-emotional tinderbox, he has mellowed publicly yet retained his inner steel behind the dressing-room door.

He has repeatedly challenged IRFU authority, especially when he has felt his side has been unfairly treated, and, although some of their fans may not necessarily agree, he has developed that hardened, bitter edge as an almost blue-tinted mirror image of Munster.

Leinster are also better when they're bitter. Ahead of this week's semi-final against Toulouse, the side that first lit the touchpaper to the Cheika-led revolution five years ago, the coach claimed that the French side "think we are still a bit tender".

Sound familiar? Last year before the Murrayfield final against Leicester, Cheika reckoned that the English side "probably felt that we were a soft touch, and we talked about that in the build-up".

So, how exactly did Cheika put the Munster into Leinster?

1 Holding the centre

Brian O'Driscoll's oft-stated envy of Munster's double-winning Heineken Cup achievements were finally washed away last season when the Irish captain added the Heineken Cup to his Grand Slam triumph.

If it weren't for Cheika, though, it is unlikely that Ireland's greatest player would have hung around to see what impact the new coach would have on the club -- after seeing three coaches depart in as many years, O'Driscoll's impatience was at its zenith.

"I was a bit dismayed about Leinster going through three coaches in three years and I wondered were Leinster going anywhere, but Cheiks gave us that stability," O'Driscoll told this newspaper earlier in the month. "He was essentially the reason I stayed and I'm thankful for that."

O'Driscoll quite brazenly raised his metaphorical hemline in the direction of Biarritz in 2005, but Cheika's no-nonsense methods appealed to his competitive nature and the duo have brought out the best in each other during that time.

As O'Driscoll's body creaked and his mind flagged, Cheika created the conditions wherein his star player could thrive; removing the club captaincy was a significant aid to the player emerging from his "mini-career crisis" from the 2007 World Cup to late 2008.

2 Anger management

Cheika was not exactly a blank page when he pitched up in Dublin. Aussies come with a reputation for being a little 'out there' and, if Cheika didn't import a sense of the exotic, then certainly his colourful assistant, the flamboyantly talented former international out-half, David Knox, fulfilled that role.

Outspoken backs' coach Knox was the architect of the stunning 41-35 mugging of Toulouse which highlighted the pair's first year in charge -- it was a case of 'too much, too young'.

They crumbled apologetically in the semi-final against Munster, out-half Felipe Contepomi's loss of temperament a mirror image of his coaching staff.

Both men would rail against referees -- at one stage Knox nearly flung himself from the old Lansdowne Road press box, such was his state of apoplexy. It was a siege mentality, but the bullets were only firing one way.

"When he came first, his personality probably showed the kind of player he was, which was very confrontational and, I suppose, emotional," a current player told this newspaper last year.

"But he's calmed down completely. He's not nearly as volatile as he used to be. He's more relaxed now. And I think that shows in the team. Our discipline is a good bit better."

Although over-wrought, at least it showed who was in charge as early public dressing-downs for Shane Horgan and Gordon D'Arcy -- the latter berated in front of journalists for attending a press conference in a green t-shirt, rather than Leinster gear. And his communication with those outside the first 22 has radically improved.

Cheika off-loaded Knox when he became a maverick luxury who threatened to undermine the coach's concentration on developing Leinster's forwards.

He is still very much in charge. An aside with a Leinster staff member a few weeks ago illustrates the point. When asked whether a particular individual was afraid of Cheika, the staff member replied immediately: "Isn't everyone afraid of Cheika?"

3 The cultural legacy

Cheika spoke repeatedly about building a culture within Leinster, so much so that it became a running gag among sceptics who failed to see a join between haughty lectures and persistent under-achievement.

But now we know what he meant. "He had a huge say in changing our mindset, turning us into a confident team not afraid to win," explained O'Driscoll earlier this month.

"He probably got us at our lowest ebb in 2005 and got us to a semi-final that year which was probably a shock to the system for everyone. We managed to get there and we've built on it.

"He sets standards for himself. He set out in year two to win the Magners, then, in year three, to win the Heineken. We've been a year behind, but he demands standards. He's been exceptional for us."

Cheika explained his philosophy through the prism of fellow Aussie scrum-half Chris Whitaker, one of his key signings.

"Chris has been an integral part of the culture that we want to build: lots of humility, lots of hard work, lots of effort and the ability to bounce back from adversity."

On another occasion, he expanded, "You've just got to understand that the humility you get from defeat is something that is crucial to building culture. We've been working hard over the last two years to build a culture that represents us properly on the field."

Murrayfield last year encapsulated the renewed gritty edge instilled in the side -- whether through Jamie Heaslip or Jonny Sexton, Malcolm O'Kelly or the blue army, Leinster had now become an unstoppable force and a team now feared -- not patronised -- throughout Europe.

4 Transfer policy -- Goodbyes

and good buys

None of the Leinster pack survived Cheika's first Magners League match in charge; only Jamie Heaslip remains from the eight that emerged from the flattering, but ultimately baseless pyjama rugby of the sensational first year quarter-final win in Toulouse.

The retirement of injury-mocked Eric Miller left a gap immediately filled by the irrepressible Heaslip and Cheika sometimes flattered to deceive in the transfer market -- Cameron Jowitt's segue from back-packer to front-liner being an example.

However, names such as Rocky Elsom, CJ van der Linde, Bernard Jackman, Ollie le Roux and Stan Wright -- the latter pilloried on arrival but an indispensable team player since -- indicated his increasing comfort in the transfer market.

Throughout, the Cheika revolution passed by many stalwarts not deemed worthy of the challenges ahead -- Brian O'Riordan, Brian O'Meara, Niall Ronan, Kieran Lewis, Gary Brown, the Blaney brothers, Ben Gissing, Ciaran Potts and Des Dillon would all be sacrificed by Cheika.

Stung by the early retirements of Denis Hickie and Keith Gleeson, character was a key component of his buys and it also can't be ignored that he revived Felipe Contepomi's hitherto stagnant Irish club career.

Le Roux instilled youngsters like Cian Healy with oodles of belief, while ultra-professional Rocky Elsom aided the leap from losers to winners on the big stage.

The repatriation of Leo Cullen and Shane Jennings, outstanding leaders, was pivotal.

Some carped that he leaned too much towards experience -- bringing back Guy Easterby and David Holwell on short-term -- but Cheika was not averse to giving youth his fling.

Rob Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald and Heaslip were shining for Leinster well before their ill-judged omission from the calamitous 2007 Rugby World Cup expedition.

Last night's squad that travelled to Glasgow is a rarity for the Irish provincial game -- all 22 players named during the week were eligible to play for their country, a stunning reflection of Cheika's desire to construct a permanent legacy at Leinster.

5 Build it and they will come

In Cheika's first season, Leinster managed to draw a mere 1,700 people for one of their competitive matches in the run-down health hazard that was Donnybrook stadium.

As he prepares to leave, season ticket sales have soared beyond 15,000 and the Leinster marketing folk have sold a brand no longer sullied by 'Dublin 4' or 'Ladyboy' tags in every corner of the province.

Leinster are now housed in the RDS and they have arguably outgrown that venue for their biggest events; the Aviva will slot in nicely.

The professional on-field operations are now directed from world-class facilities in Riverview.

And Cheika, like all the best coaches, has assembled a world-class team around him -- Kurt McQuilkin (defence), Jono Gibbes (forwards) and Alan Gaffney (attack), while also this season recognising that some scrummaging help was required in Reggie Corrigan.

Gone are the mavericks like Mike Brewer and Knox, who, aside from the minor inconvenience of hating the other's guts, failed to produce the unbreakable team spirit that resides within the squad.

"I can't speak highly enough of what he's done for us," offers O'Driscoll. "Giving us the mentality, along with coaching staff and players who have bought into that. He's had a huge influence."

Irish Independent

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