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Alan Gaffney sure Michael Cheika can revamp Wallabies

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Alan Gaffney (right) with Michael Cheika at the Waratahs training session. Photo credit: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

Alan Gaffney (right) with Michael Cheika at the Waratahs training session. Photo credit: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

Getty Images

Alan Gaffney (right) with Michael Cheika at the Waratahs training session. Photo credit: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

ALAN Gaffney chuckles from his hospital bed in Sydney.

"Mentor?" You've asked him whether he ever viewed himself in that light now that Michael Cheika, his erstwhile coaching colleague from Randwick, then Leinster and latterly back home with NSW Waratahs, has assumed the role as Australia's national coach.

"What the word mentor covers, I'm not too sure. I don't know what you'd bloody call it. Sure, we'd sit down and thrash things out," he says.

"I'd make a few suggestions - they wouldn't all be taken on - in terms of how he should be progressing his career or have his teams playing the game and so on. But whether you classify it as a mentor?

"I don't know. Mentor for some people probably just means just an old bastard!"

Gaffney is 67 now. He's getting the second knee replaced. Old war wounds. Too many tackles down his old ten channel. Too many miles pounding the hard roads.

Ireland remembers him fondly as Munster coach, then assistant to Cheika at Leinster, forging that seminal 2009 Heineken Cup breakthrough, at the same helping Ireland achieve a Grand Slam.

Cheika, 20 years younger, recalled him fondly this week, too, acknowledging his role in helping the Waratahs mimic Leinster's rise from parody to pantheon.

The pair will now renew their relationship, in a way; Gaffney now coaches the national U-20 side.

OUTSIDER

Press him, though, and Gaffney admits he would never have envisaged Cheika ever assuming such a position within the inner sanctum of Australia rugby. Cheika was always an outsider, you see.

Randwick has had 101 Australian internationals; from Cheika's time, every single colleague would wear green and gold - Daly, Poidevin, Campese, a legion of legends.

Not Cheika. Ironically, he walked into the club on the same day as Ewen McKenzie - the man he now succeeds as Australian coach.

"Cheika was discarded and it was totally wrong," says Gaffney now. "It couldn't have been done on his ability because that level was very, very high. Some people came down on his work-rate but again that was absolute drivel.

"He had a fantastic work-rate. He refereed the game then the way he does now. Nothing has changed in that regard. Even playing with such star names, he had an enormous amount of confidence and he was very creative in what he wanted to do.

"We've seen that part of Cheiks, he's very passionate, he explodes and does this or that. And the Australian establishment didn't like that, they didn't want that sort of person, they wanted guys who could toe the line and Cheiks just wasn't one of those people."

This independent streak would mark Cheika's life; the son of a Lebanese immigrant, he inherited that thirst for travel so he left before any hurt could fester at his rejection by Australia.

He only returned home when his dad, Joe, got injured; at this time, he began working in the fashion industry while coaching back at Randwick. Ultimately, he would develop a company that would make him a millionaire.

He insisted this week that he was not a career coach; what he means is that he can make decisions, often uncomfortable, and antagonise administrators knowing that he can always walk away if required to compromise.

The outsider of Australia rugby is now on the inside - and he will make the decisions he wants to make, even if ARU officials don't like them. Reputations mean nothing to a man who once spent an evening in the company of Beyonce without having a clue who she was.

"He has always been a high achiever," says Gaffney. "Now at one point in time there was no way on God's earth that he would have viewed himself as having a career in coaching.

"But he saw that he did have ability. He saw a future. And he's going to achieve more now than he did as a player. He has always had a drive. He doesn't accept second best, as Leinster discovered. He's critical of himself as well as the players. Harsh but fair."

Cheika again spoke of self-improvement this week, name-checking Enda McNulty, the former Armagh footballer who transformed Brian O'Driscoll's mindset, amongst others.

Yet the Lebanese blood still boils over occasionally; a six-month suspended sentence looms after he abused a cameraman last season; one more blip and he could miss the World Cup.

"I've known him for a long, long time and I can probably say more to him in those moments than other people because we go back a long way and there's respect there," says Gaffney.

"I'm not saying he's always right or I'm always right. He has moderated, though and being in the Australian job he will have to be. He's going to keep maturing as a person and he'll keep getting better as a coach."

Just as Ireland recalls Gaffney warmly, the reverse holds true. While 2009 was a pinnacle, he was also on board when Ireland downed the Wallabies at the 2011 World Cup.

"It was a lot of fun in 2009, a fantastic time. To do what we did under a fair bit of pressure and to come through to win that was a great achievement," he says.

"The World Cup is an odd feeling, no doubt about it. But Ireland gave me the opportunity at the time and that's where all my focus was. Les (Kiss) and I derived a great deal of excitement from it too. We had to go overseas to continue our careers so to win on that day was something special."

Today could be special in his old Dublin stomping ground, too.

"It will be an intriguing battle between two astute coaches. It will be a real battle of wits. Neither are probably playing the kind of game they really want to play at the moment, you'd have to say," he says.

"Australia in the last two weeks don't represent what he wants but he's a little hamstrung at the moment. And I'm sure Joe is looking to kick his team on."

While Cheika finds his feet, Gaffney will soon be back on his. All the while, the next generation of Wallabies remain in good hands.

"It reminds me of my younger days when people used to listen to you!" he chuckles once more.

Cheika is certain to ring him for advice soon. And you can guarantee he will definitely listen to his old mentor.

Irish Independent