Sunday 18 November 2018

Wild card

Leinster coach Michael Cheika
Leinster coach Michael Cheika
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Towards the end of Australia's tour of Britain and Ireland in 1988, Tom Kiernan sat at a post-match function in Cardiff with the Wallaby coach, Bob Dwyer.

The tourists had recovered from an inauspicious start, in which they lost the Test against England, to subsequently devour all before them. Their rugby was breath-taking in both breadth and execution. "We've never seen anything like it before," said Kiernan to Dwyer. "Where does it come from?"

Across the table, George Morgan -- former president of the Welsh Union -- interjected before Dwyer could answer. He told Kiernan of a video he had been given on a recent trip to Australia. The video Randwick: The First Sixty Five Years, he assured the Corkman, would answer all his questions.

And Dwyer leaned back in his chair, laughing. Morgan was on the money. Understanding the so-called Randwick Way was, indeed, the key to de-coding Australia.

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When Joseph Cheika pitched up quayside in Sydney on Christmas Day 1950, it is said that his only real possession -- apart from the clothes he wore -- was a phone number.

He was directed to the hard-bitten Redfern area, where other Lebanese immigrants tended to gather. And there, he took any paltry jobs he could to build his new life in Australia. Michael Cheika would inherit many things from his father, but maybe the courage to explore was the most fundamental.

For there was a time in his life when just about everything he desired seemed to sit in a tidy package on his doorstep. And Cheika, effectively, stepped out over it and ran.

From the moment he left school, his life had gravitated towards the Randwick Oval, a picturesque rugby stadium set hard against the beach in Sydney's eastern suburbs. He was a firebrand back-rower, who played against the touring All Blacks in '88, made the Wallaby U-21s and was invited to enroll at the Institute of Sport.

It seemed like a golden ticket. He tossed it in the bin.

Cheika had a desire to find out more about himself than what rugby could unravel. It is said that he was in Dwyer's office one day and spotted a note on the desk. The words "back row" were written under a French name and number. Cheika grabbed the note and within weeks he was wearing the colours of Castres.

"Just made the decision that I wanted to live a different kind of life," he would explain many years later.

His gypsy instincts would take him from Castres to CASG Paris and on to Livorno in Italy, before he returned to Randwick in 1999 to captain the Super 12 side. And it was around then that his friend and Randwick team-mate, David Campese, drew his attention to another 'situations vacant' column back in Europe.

Italian side Padova were looking for a native-speaking coach and, well, Cheika ticked the box for speaking Italian. Just one snag. He'd never coached anyone, never even played sheepdog to a flock of kids. It sounded like a shot to nothing. He took it.

So, mid-season in Australia, Cheika just drew a line under his playing career. He took a plane north with his Randwick buddy David Knox, the two Aussies throwing themselves, with huge energy and profound innocence, into a Heineken Cup campaign that would decant six defeats in six outings.

By now, though, Joseph Cheika had fallen ill and Michael went home to spend time with his father. He was returning as a coach with 'European experience' and Randwick, suitably impressed, put him in charge of their Sydney Premiership campaign. Over the next three seasons he would guide them to third, second and, finally, first in the Premiership.

This would have been good in any circumstances, but Cheika was lauded for the aesthetics of the journey. They won the Premiership, you see, playing the Randwick Way. As he would say himself: "We wanted to get back to that respectful arrogance Randwick always had!"

Dwyer publicly declared that this son of a Lebanese immigrant would coach the Wallabies next and Cheika, again looking at what bore all the appearance of a pre-ordained path, effectively bolted for the door.

Chief Executive Mick Dawson described his appointment as Leinster coach in the summer of 2005 as "a calculated punt". Cheika was little-known in northern hemisphere rugby. The province had lurched into a state of flux after a sequence of bad coaching misadventures. Declan Kidney jumped ship after a single season and, if Leinster needed anything now, it was a pair of safe hands at the controls.

Instead, they got a maverick with a temper.

Former Wallaby lock Justin Harrison spoke in the build-up to Leinster's semi-final clash with Munster in Croke Park of his first encounter with Cheika on a rugby field. Harrison was a new kid on the block with Canberra, Cheika a volatile No 8 in the Randwick colours. "He was older and well-established," said Harrison.

"He was also pretty handy with his right and left (hands) and, sometimes, the clashes were more of a hand contest than playing ability."

Cheika's short fuse would follow him into coaching. One of the players starting against Leicester at Murrayfield today explained this week: "When he came first, his personality probably showed the kind of player he was, which was very confrontational and, I suppose, emotional. But he's calmed down completely. He's not nearly as volatile as he used to be. He's more relaxed now. And I think that shows in the team. Our discipline is a good bit better.

"Like him and Knoxy used go crazy with referees, but he's really sorted that out. He had to. I think he realised it wasn't healthy for the team. Like, if you're blowing up at referees and touch judges all the time, players then feel that they can do the same. And it just creates a blame culture.

"That's the biggest thing. He always had good ideas, he just needed to rein in his temper."

Frustration defined his early seasons in Dublin. Cheika's first throw of the dice pretty much synopsised the fragile psyche he had to tackle. Leinster went to Toulouse in 2006 for a Heineken Cup quarter-final and destroyed Guy Noves's aristocrats with a glorious expression of rugby played the Randwick Way.

Then, in the semi-final against Munster, they folded like a row of deckchairs.

Worse, they blew out early in their next two European campaigns, even if last season's Magners League success did, at least, buy him some modest kudos. But patience was wearing thin. Leinster were spending too much money to be content among the Heineken Cup also-rans (especially with Munster fielding garlands in virtual bulk-form).

Cheika also found himself fire-fighting after a carelessly tossed match by his departing ally, Knox, caught a gust of wind. Having heard his contract was not being renewed, Knox ridiculed Irish rugby in an interview given virtually en route to the airport. Among the nuggets of wisdom tossed overboard was a contention that Ronan O'Gara amounted to an inept out-half and Kidney's appointment as Irish coach would prove "a big mistake".

Cheika immediately distanced himself from the vitriol. He explained: "I decided a while ago that he (Knox) wouldn't be staying this year. I don't think he was ever really into it from a living point of view and I had a conversation with Alan (Gaffney) about coming here.

"So I think he is probably bitter because we didn't renew him for next season. We've been friends for quite a while, but I'm not sure what the point of it (Knox's outburst) was. I think, in time, he will feel that he has let himself down."

He let Cheika down. The efficacy of the Randwick Way was already being called into question around the RDS now. The coach needed patience from his employers, not bad manners from his mates.

He knew the knives were out.

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WHATEVER the reservations about Cheika's vision for Leinster, his work ethic was long accepted as a staunch, inviolable quality.

Ordinarily, he clocks in at 6am and is the last to leave under cover of darkness. The birth of his daughter a few months ago has not changed this. Cheika sets the template for his staff and the smart ones respond accordingly. As one player puts it: "He's the hardest worker in the Leinster camp by far. In fairness, it's very obvious.

"Fellas see that and respect him for it."

Yet, up to beating Harlequins at The Stoop, there was the palpable sense of this adventure drawing to a close. Leinster remained too fitful to be trusted. Too many senior players looked to be in a comfort zone. One key signing, the fearsome CJ van der Linde, was sidelined by a troublesome big toe.

Cheika's indulgence of some players to the point of deference had long been creating squad tensions that seemed certain to spill over.

Yet, behind closed doors, he was busy building bridges. "He's even admitted that himself," said one player this week, "that he does tend to give the senior players a lot of leeway, particularly in terms of form. A guy might not play well for a couple of games, but he'll still back them. Which, if you're a senior player, it's great. But, if you're one of the lads trying to get in there, it's a hard thing to take.

"I think he's definitely accepted that point. He's very good now at communicating with the guys not on the first XV. Which is always the hard part. That's the key to squad unity, how they're dealt with. This is definitely the most unified squad we've had."

There is, it seems, a padlock on Cheika's emotions now. There was no whooping or hollering in the Croke Park dressing-room three weeks back, the coach observing flatly: "This means nothing boys if we don't go on and close the deal."

Close it and Cheika's future will be mapped out in the stars. In April of last year, speculation linked him with a return to Australia as coach to New South Wales Waratahs. He dismissed it as flattering nonsense, commenting: "I've a job with Leinster and I intend to finish it."

In Edinburgh today, he may well do that, this son of a Lebanese immigrant who travelled to the New World with nothing but his dreams. Randwick taught Michael Cheika that rugby could be an expression of more than repetition and strength. Joseph Cheika instilled in his kid the courage to explore.

Which, when you break it down, pretty much amounts to one and the same thing.

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