Saturday 20 January 2018

Michael Cheika: I still owe huge debt to Ireland

Michael Cheika is determined to stay true to his principles. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Michael Cheika is determined to stay true to his principles. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

We have been presented with two sides of Michael Cheika in the past year but the man himself sees only one.

From coach of the year in 2016, as hailed by World Rugby, to clown of the year in 2017, as crudely drawn by those leading world experts in subtle wit, the New Zealand media.

Yet Cheika himself hasn't changed an iota even if the perspective of others remains in perpetual shift.

Indeed, as he returns to Dublin for a second time in charge of his national team, it seems like just old times in the home of Leinster Rugby, the RDS.

"We started off there in Donnybrook and moved here, it was a brilliant venue - it still is," he smiles as the autumnal air sweeps through his nostrils.

"I can see that. You can see the pride they've got in there and what's happened in the province here. It's been nice for me to come back down here - always plenty of good memories."

Now 49, he and wife, Stephanie, have four kids; that three of them have Irish passports indicates the depth of the family's links to this country.

The couple will link up soon on this trip to catch up on old friends but first there is the small matter of completing a first northern hemisphere Grand Slam since that seminal 1984 side opened the eyes of a continent to a new oval ball game.

New memories for a nation struggling to invest its interest in a sport that has so often struggled to return it.

"I can always come back for holidays - this is about being 100pc committed to having the team as best prepared as possible on Saturday," he says.

More familiar ground. Lansdowne Road. Staying in town has afforded him the opportunity to tread so many familiar footsteps; the shape of everything seems familiar to him and it helps because he himself doesn't think he has changed.

The self-made millionaire who has the right to sell Victoria Beckham's jeans in Australia doesn't need this coaching lark to feed the kids; it feeds something else, though, and he knows, without this country, he may never have discovered that his appetite was so ravenous.

"Without a doubt," he says of the debt he owes Leinster CEO Mick Dawson and the province's management. "They could have picked a million other coaches before me.

"If you look at the situation the club was at the time, and the resumé that I had, I am sure there was a lot more experienced coaches out there who had applied for that position.

"They took a big gamble on me and I I'll always be grateful for that."

The self-styled "hobo" from the tough side of Sydney's tracks who turned up in 2005 morphed into the caricature of a dictator, but those who know him better saw deeper.

And nobody could see deeper than he himself.

"Knowing how to handle players and trying to get the best out of them were the biggest lessons I learned here because I was pretty raw when I came first," he says.

"I learned to manage the highs and lows a bit better. Just knowing how to deal with them and put them into context, especially towards the back end of my time here.

"I was able to make decisions that I knew could have different outcomes, but knowing there was a different context down the line rather than doing everything all at once.

"You don't have to make everything a winner.

"I was able to go into some big games with some big game players and that helped me to make the best possible decisions and manage those decisions."

His past informs the present.You get the sense that, when the next World Cup in Japan comes around and being at the other side of 50, Cheika may decide to enjoy his life a little more with the family and take a career break.

Then again, this "coaching lark" was supposed to be a career break of sorts too. . .

The call to his national side was peremptory and his last visit to Dublin was a whirlwind - and a defeat, he bitterly recalls.

Since then, he guided a free-flowing side to the World Cup semi-final by eliminating the hosts, England but this season the national side have stuttered; losing a series 3-0 at home to the English, as well as taking tonkings from New Zealand.

"I have never lost as many matches in a row," Cheika admits. However, there is a bigger picture.

"I felt we dealt with this year really well," he offers. "We're are making a generational change with 13 new caps this year. Our federation are supportive and we will continue doing this next year and they year after.

"So we know it will not always work out 100pc but as long as we play with full commitment and bring our best intent, nobody will be unhappy."

With a weakened side, beat Grand Slam champions England on the try count in two of those summer Tests but Cheika admits they then tanked against the All Blacks in Sydney.

"We were on the precipice," he says. "Then we go two tries down to the Boks in Brisbane?"

They didn't fall off the cliff; Cheika held his nerve. As he has always done.

"Was it hard to take? Yes, it was. But we've had 15 games against the top three sides in world rugby this year. That could be the making of our team."

And Cheika will continue to change them. But never himself.

Irish Independent

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