Sunday 26 February 2017

Cheika targets Grand Slam to brighten Wallabies' bleak year

Oliver Brown

Australia head coach Michael Cheika. Photo: Mike Egerton/PA
Australia head coach Michael Cheika. Photo: Mike Egerton/PA

Meet Michael Cheika for the first time and you might be tricked into thinking that he is an unreconstructed, cauliflower-eared brute with an Australian accent broader than a farmhand's in a Castlemaine advert.

Listen closely, though, as the Wallabies coach switches to fluent French, then Italian - he also happens, given his Lebanese ancestry, to speak Arabic - and you start to fathom his hidden depths.

He is a walking paradox, just as adept at sledging his good friend Eddie Jones as he is at small talk over drinks receptions at the ambassador's residence in Paris. Now, two years into his sometimes turbulent tenure, Cheika finds himself at a tipping point. In 2015, his Australia team were toasting their feat of reaching a World Cup final.

Nursing

Today, they are nursing their wounds from a chastening post-tournament reckoning, having been thrashed three times by New Zealand and suffered a once-unthinkable series whitewash at home to England.

It is noticeable, even so, how there are no snap calls for his resignation, with the Wallabies wisely steering clear of the blood-letting into which they periodically lapse. Where predecessor Ewen McKenzie ended his time in charge with a dramatic resignation speech in the middle of a Brisbane press conference, Cheika benefits from his cult of personality and the absence of any compelling alternative candidate.

His players, to a man, will not hear a word said against the Cheika credo.

Dane Haylett-Petty, one of those blooded into the side since the World Cup, says: "This season Cheik has given so many young guys a go, and we feel we have grown as the season has gone on. After a World Cup, there is always going to be an element of transition. But Cheik is big on trying to excite the fans and to play in that typical Australian way. That suits me."

So far, so on-message. But some of the grandees of Australian rugby have dared to demur. The most prominent dissenter is Mark Ella, the quicksilver genius whose talents at fly-half were so crucial to the last Wallabies grand slam against the home nations, in 1984.

Ella argued recently that the progress at the last World Cup was a false dawn, which encouraged the players to build an exaggerated opinion of themselves.

But for Craig Joubert's incorrect decision to award a penalty against Scotland, he pointed out, they would not even have reached the semi-finals.

Lately, the criticism has started to eat away at Cheika. He was uncommonly thin-skinned after a third Bledisloe Cup trouncing by New Zealand last month, accusing the Kiwi media of a lack of respect after one local front page mocked him as a clown.

At many levels, he and Jones, his former team-mate at Randwick on Sydney's southern beaches, are kindred spirits. Both, for example, are peerless verbal jousters when the mood takes them.

"Excellent with the lip, mate," Jones says of Cheika, drily. Intriguingly, both have also been shaped by their disappointments of never receiving a Wallabies cap.

He has arrived for this autumn tour in bullish mood, targeting a first grand slam for 32 years and brushing the pain of the latest results into the long grass. "You have got to think about what is next, not what is behind you," says Cheika, pressed on whether the prospect of extending Australia's winning run against Wales to 12 would be an incentive at Cardiff today.

Radar

"I don't know if anyone is thinking about that, when you have not won as many games as we should have this year. It gives you nothing and it gives them nothing. It has not popped up on anyone's radar."

Cheika, a redoubtable character who once conducted a team-room talk while menacingly swinging a golf club in one hand, claims that he revels in the task of proving his detractors wrong. It is not always a convincing argument. He is understood to have been unhappy at the sight of Glen Ella, brother to Mark and latterly a recruit to Jones's England backroom team, wildly celebrating this year's wins over the Wallabies. But he is, for the moment, much the best option Australia have.

Charismatic, cosmopolitan and fiercely passionate about the cause, he is serious about his team's grand slam aspirations. Wales, Ireland and even Scotland, who ran them so close at Twickenham, will all present significant obstacles.

There is a sense, however, that it could all yet hinge on a potentially seismic confrontation with England in a month's time. It would be a fitting crescendo to Australia's tumultuous year.(© Daily Telegraph, London)

Wales v Australia,
Live, BBC 1, 2.30

Telegraph.co.uk

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