Video: Cheika -- ‘Ireland have to physically dominate France, to hell with the consequences’
Published 10/02/2012 | 05:00
As he pounds the Parisian streets, former Leinster coach Michael Cheika tries not to break stride when asked just how Ireland can emerge from the Stade de France with anything more than frostbite.
Glacial Gallic conditions inhibit any attempts to stop and philosophise like the great thinkers who thronged this glorious city a century ago. Bondi Beach this ain't.
"We're freezing our pieces off here mate," drawls the familiar voice of the Aussie, who led Leinster from the shadows of Munster to their first Heineken Cup success in 2009.
Cheika's advice to Ireland is delivered succinctly and without pomp. The plunging mercury dial requires a heated response. In effect, the Randwick man is calling for controlled aggression.
"To beat France here, you have to play without any regard for yourself," says Cheika, whose 18-month restorative adventure with Stade Francais has brought him to the very heartland of the game here.
"You have to throw everything into it. You have to intimidate them physically. That's a huge part of the game wherever you go in France and I've learned that a lot in my short time here.
"Physical intimidation can lead to mental frailty. I've seen that happen on both sides of the fence with my team here. One day we can look really great and formidable, another day we look just average.
"Ireland have to play like they played against Australia in the World Cup. That's the standard for me. And that has to become the norm for this Irish team. And when they don't play like that, it has to be viewed as a bit of a surprise."
Cheika operated a blue-nosed shift as analyst for BBC in Paris last weekend as France cruised to victory against Italy, but the majority of the chat when he returned to work after a week off was the failure by Ireland to set up a potential Grand Slam clash tomorrow night.
"There's huge respect there and it all emanates from provincial rugby. Guys were coming into my office on Monday morning saying, how can Ireland lose? They've got three teams in the final eight of the Heineken Cup quarter-finals. They see the Irish play in Europe and they wonder why it doesn't translate."
Cheika used to wonder that too until the Grand Slam happened, when a belated congregation of kindred provincial spirits adopted a mentality and a game-plan -- however limited -- that earned its just reward.
Since then, Irish international rugby has effectively achieved nothing -- bar a one-off World Cup win against Australia -- to indicate a sense of continuity or organic development from that all-conquering 2009 season. As Cheika walks and talks through Paris, you sense that despite the geographical distance that separates him from his erstwhile bailiwick, it's a theme that still intrigues him.
Fidelity to certain former colleagues may inhibit him from giving full expression to those misgivings, but a related enquiry about the hastily installed IRFU policy restricting the foreign influx of players, in which area Cheika was most influential -- Nacewa, Hines, Elsom, Wright, et al -- scrapes the surface of his suspicion.
"It's not my game to talk about," he does reasonably insist. "It's theirs. They can do what they want. What I do know is that within the competitions of the Heineken and the Rabo, it's flourishing over there. Young players are thriving, crowds are great and, you know, a lot of other countries are envious of the crowds and the performances.
"I don't really see anything in the last six or seven years that has been detrimental to the game in Ireland. But as I said, it's not my game to talk about."
He's immersed in a new game now. Cheika, a self-made businessman in the fashion trade before he ever took the oval game seriously, often joked in Dublin that he was not a career coach.
He's got young twins now, so you ask him what the hell is he still doing in such a pressurised environment -- exhibit A, haranguing ERC referees after losing last year's Challenge Cup final to Conor O'Shea's Harlequins in Cardiff.
"I'm more into the rebuilding of things," says the man who utterly over-hauled the culture of Leinster rugby. "It's about believing in a vision. It's all in or nothing, you know.
"I could never coach another team in this championship because I've committed so much of myself to this project.
"It's like I could never coach another team in the Pro12 because I gave my all to Leinster. After this, I might put my feet up and see what happens. But I definitely don't see it as a job."
Having arrived amidst a financial tsunami when the very existence of this famous club was threatened, Cheika's emergence with a team that still threatens to qualify for the play-offs, and remains in European competition, reflects well on his motivational skills.
"There were a few problems here and it was about addressing that. I didn't expect all the financial issues to blow up, but I just had to go through it. We got rid of 16 players and got 21 new ones.
"Slowly but surely the frailties in our club are being repaired. We've still got a long way to go on the playing field.
"There's more of a feeling of club there now, but it's one step at a time. It's hard because you're used to a certain playing level coming from Leinster and it's hard to adjust.
"It is different here. The style of rugby is different, the mentality is different. You have to get used to it."
He doesn't even miss Christmas Day on Bondi. "Ah man, it's been about eight or nine years now."
Cheika knows what he does best now. He hopes Ireland can absorb a similar lesson tomorrow.
"I know a lot of people want to focus on technicalities, but both teams have pluses and minuses and it's really going to be about who wants this one more.
"Ireland have to be physically dominant and to hell with the consequences. They shouldn't be worried about the ramifications of the physical context. Just go for it."