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Cheika: I'm grateful to Leinster for giving a hobo like me an opportunity

AT times it must have felt to Michael Cheika this week that sole refuge was to be found amongst once familiar Irish accents.

On Wednesday he popped into UCD to witness the revolution in professional Leinster training facilities that were a world away from the habitat he encountered in 2005, when players got changed leaning on their cars and meetings were held in portakabins.

"Leo Cullen was still complaining about the décor," smiles Cheika after meeting up with some old players and head honcho Mick Dawson, to whom it was put "Michael Who?", when Cheika was first unfurled.

"It was great, considering I was heavily involved in getting all that ready," he says proudly. "I'd never seen it.

"All in all it was really nice to see. They were very nice to me when I was there. It is just a sign of how far the club has come as well.

"They gave me the opportunity. No one would have given a hobo like me the opportunity to come and coach, especially in the situation they were.

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Michael Cheika during his time at Leinster

Michael Cheika during his time at Leinster

Michael Cheika during his time at Leinster

"It would have been much easier for them to get someone more established at the time. They took a gamble on me, in a serious way, and I learned a lot with the players I got to coach and the process I went though."

He returns as the new Australia coach but any semblance that he may be smelling of roses is haunted by the stench of scandal that whisked him into the hot-seat so peremptorily just a few weeks ago.

He has found himself husbanding a brand and a team as psychologically scarred as the outfit he first discovered in Leinster; he will aim to achieve a parallel culture change now, but with less time and under unenviably more pressure.

That much can be gleaned by a testy public press conference with the Australian media, coursing the outrage back home that still disputes the merits of enfant terrible Kurtley Beale's right to be in the squad.

Journalists wonder why he is included despite not yet paying an ARU fine imposed after the infamous texting scandal that brought down Cheika's predecessor, and good friend, Ewen McKenzie, and why there is a purported media ban on the player speaking.

Cheating

"I didn't know he hadn't paid his fine," says Cheika. "I'm looking after the footie thing. I'm sure it will be looked after. We're not cheating anyone, if that's the inference.

"If you ask me, I'll talk to you about it, like a normal relationship between adults," he tells the journalist. "It's not a time to ask me at a press conference. There's nobody more official than me. I'm the man. You give me a call."

Cheika couldn't refuse this gig and, as much as it may seem like a poisoned chalice, he is proud to be the self-styled general of this team.

Later, sitting with the Irish journalists who, admittedly, gave him an equally hard time in his stuttering days in attempting to instil a hard-nosed culture of defiance and respect in Leinster, he reflects on the immense challenges that lie ahead.

Challenges that his period in Leinster can, he hopes, become an influence as he begins and all too brief preparation window for next year's World Cup leading a Wallaby camp even his players have previously branded "toxic".

There were more friendly Irish voices in McDonagh's pub in Dalkey this week, where the team went for a bonding session; 12 months after a drinking session unveiled the ultimately fatal cancer in the previous regime, didn't Cheika think it was a risk?

Rather, it was a test of a new unwritten code of what it means to be a committed, honest international.

"Don't think we didn't think about it! I have no doubt about the players but it only takes one person to snap a funny picture but, at the end of the day, we're not going to win anything with schoolkids," he says.

"I trust them, we have had a good discussion around performance, what's required to be representing your country.

"They know that and they know that respect is given to them and they have to pay that back. I don't need to set rules in place because there's a code and if someone crosses that line of respect they'll be out.

"It's that simple. They know that. And if they don't perform every day like they need to then that won't be good enough.

"They will be out of the team and that's what hurts people the most when it comes to this level. Not losing a contract or getting booted out. You don't get to play for your country and that's what hurts most.

"Surely we shouldn't have to be worried about that. That's a problem when we're having to worry about it, when we're having to worry about what could be asked in a press conference.

"I was a bit disappointed. I was looking forward to it, speaking to all the old journos in Ireland and then that comes up earlier.

"But if every player is just about our rugby and respects things then the odd mistake is always going to be forgiven.

Camaraderie

"It's about having a high performing team that has excellent team spirit and camaraderie because that is imperative to win big games.

"You don't do that being locked in your hotel because you're worried about something. If we don't have that trust we are going nowhere. It went alright, from all accounts."

He earned similar trust at Leinster and the Waratahs; he's the only coach to win Heineken Cup and Super 15 titles. This, though, is the supreme challenge.

"That's why I was late," he explains. "We are doing a few things to get ourselves sorted out as to what's driving us. What are the bonds between the players? What's the identity for the people who are supporting the team at home?

"As opposed to having people throw daggers at us. I understand why too. It's up to me as the leader of the band to drive that behaviour all the time on field and off field.

"So that people do want to get up at 2am in the morning to watch them play, and if it goes wrong still be proud of the way they play."

The lessons of his history, the harshest absorbed on this soil, gives him a sporting chance.

Irish Independent