Sport Rugby

Saturday 24 March 2018

'I still think Irish rugby is in pretty robust health'

In the second part of his exclusive interview, Michael Cheika tells Peter Bills that a wealth of emerging talent will keep the national side 'top of the tree'

Michael Cheika believes Brian O'Driscoll is the 'heart and soul' of the Ireland rugby team. Photo: Getty Images
Michael Cheika believes Brian O'Driscoll is the 'heart and soul' of the Ireland rugby team. Photo: Getty Images

Peter Bills

Ireland and the Irish changed Michael Cheika as a person. That young, inexperienced Aussie who pitched up at Donnybrook five years ago definitely wasn't the same person who has shifted seamlessly to French Top 14 club Stade Francais and life in the French capital this summer.

How did Ireland change him?

"They showed me different ways to overcome things," he says. "Maybe before, I was inclined to charge in and say: 'This is the way it's got to be', whereas now maybe I know some different ways to go about things. The bag man, Johnny O'Hagan, showed me exactly how to do things.

"I discovered that, for example in having to deal with all the committees, etc, there is a different way to approach all that to try to get the result you need.

"I liked their honesty: they wanted to get stuck in and they were open to anything once they had trust in you.

"They made me more philosophical, too, although it might have been a combination of me staying there and getting older. But perhaps it was more an application of philosophies. There is not much point having a philosophy and just letting it drift out into space. You have got to try and apply it to what you are doing. That is the key issue.

"We got pretty close as a group and I wouldn't have stayed five years if I hadn't enjoyed it. They are definitely a tough group mentally. This year, we won a lot of games mainly because of the fact that we just wanted to win.

"And that is a key factor. In rugby today, you need to mix the top technological science with old-school values. We had that at Leinster where there were still a lot of good old-school values, with a good dressing-room atmosphere.

"It is imperative in the modern game because when the chips are down with 10 minutes to go and you are two points behind, yes, the technique should be built into you, but it's how much you want to play for your team-mates that gets you past the opposition. The game hasn't changed much in that respect.

"Overall, the experience was brilliant there and the life I had there was great, too. The hardest bits were probably the first semi-final against Munster in the Heineken Cup, which was tough. The very first time we played Munster was hard, too, because I didn't know the history of it all. We got pretty pumped down there that first time."

That first Heineken semi-final against Munster in 2006 had been set up by the fantastic 41-35 victory over Toulouse in the south of France.

Cheika smiles.

"It was a great win in Toulouse, but we were probably doing it off adrenalin," he says. "We needed to get the substance there that was going to make it happen every week. We were too inconsistent.

"But when we won that match in Toulouse, I definitely thought we could win the Heineken that year. And that was probably my innocence and naivety as a professional coach.

"So, why did we come up short (they lost 30-6) in the semi-final? Hell, we weren't ready for that at all. The team wasn't ready to go that many quality games in a row. We didn't have the belief and substance to make that next step.

"The difference was shown in the dressing-room when we got beaten in that semi-final and then the semi-final against the same team three years later.

"It was chalk and cheese the way we prepared for the two games. In the 2008/09 Heineken Cup, there was much more understanding that we were going to win at all costs in the second Munster semi-final (they won 25-6). Whereas in the first one, we hoped we were going to win. That was the difference."

Wasn't Leinster's 2009/10 season ultimately a failure, given they lost out in the Heineken and Magners? Cheika snorts at that suggestion.

"Considering we lost players like Rocky Elsom, Chris Whitaker and Felipe Contepomi, I think our guys showed unbelievable consistency this year," he argues.

"It was disappointing without a doubt to lose to the Ospreys in the final match. But they were the better team on the day. That didn't spoil it all for me, because it can't come down to one day, not after five years.

"There are no fairytales; there is only what you earn. We didn't earn that game and you have got to be honest when it comes to those things. On the day we didn't play very well.

"But nothing would be able to tarnish my memories of the last five years. Some people asked why we couldn't have bought more players of the calibre of Elsom. But sometimes it's not the right time to do that. I just felt that was the right mix for that time. OK it was close, but it wasn't quite enough in the end."

Cheika has never hidden his deep admiration for Ireland's captain Brian O'Driscoll as a player and person.

"He is very much the heart and soul of the Ireland team. What he has done so well, he has adjusted his own game according to what the team needs from him. He knows what he has to do for the team on a particular day," he says.

"He has been an invaluable player at Leinster because he stood up to say 'I am staying with this province, it is my province and I want to be here'. Also, he has improved his game as well, and his leadership has improved. He is an all-round better person.

"It is not hard to coach him. You just make him feel alright, give him the right skill practice, involve him in the responsibility of how we are going to play the game and let him go.

"What happens to Ireland when he goes? There have been great players in every generation from all countries. Brian is a great player and the game will be worse off without him playing, that's for sure. But there will be space for someone else to come and take up the mantle and that is the evolution of the game.

"I think Ireland have got the players to take over. Not to be another O'Driscoll, but to be a great player in their own right."

Are the best players being overplayed? Should Ireland have taken all their available top players to New Zealand and Australia this summer after a long, enervating season? Cheika has definite views on this topic.

"It is hard for the national coaches, these decisions. But if it had been me, I would have thought about resting a few of the guys. Especially the ones that had been on the Lions tour the previous June/July.

"But it is difficult now because there are contracts saying 'bring your top players or there are penalties'. But no one thinks about that part of it (the players' welfare). There are other forces at play.

"We are asking too much of the top players. For example, I don't know why Ireland played that Barbarians game. Players know what they need to do now: they are so well prepared, they don't need a game like the Barbarians. Maybe it was arranged by the Federation, I don't know. But I don't think they needed that extra game."

What are Cheika's thoughts on Irish rugby in general; where to now, for example, for an international team heavily beaten by the French in Paris in February, thrashed by New Zealand in New Plymouth and beaten by a struggling Australian outfit in Brisbane, both in June?

If 2009 was Irish rugby's annus perfectus, 2010 is looking like its annus horribilis.

Cheika offers a cool, calculating assessment of the present. For example, I ask him, have not Ireland just punched above their weight in recent years?

"I think they have managed a steady climb. I don't think they are fighting a battle like they are always underdogs. They have slowly but surely climbed to have got self belief; their playing group believes they are going well.

"I know they didn't have a great World Cup last time and it's not been a great tour this summer. But that happens and anyway, they have really performed quite consistently on the international stage. What they have also done well is bring more players to the party. A player like John Muldoon will certainly be up to international level: he'll always be up for the battle.

"So, that is something they have done well: they've increased their playing pool. That's partly through provincial rugby getting stronger and partly down to their international set-up getting better."

But just as night always follows even the brightest of days, won't Ireland's rugby men inevitably experience some twilight years after their recent successes? Cheika doesn't necessarily buy that view.

"I have seen the younger players coming through in Ireland. If you go back and look at the Irish team that played South Africa last November, when that game finished there were five players on the team that had either just come out of the Leinster Academy from the first year I was there or in the years after that," he says.

"That meant they had to be 25 or under. You had Jamie Heaslip, Jonathan Sexton, Rob Kearney, Cian Healy and Sean O'Brien. Luke Fitzgerald would have been there too if he hadn't been injured.

"I know that Munster have got a lot of young guys coming through too and then there's Ulster. Also, Stephen Ferris is only 24, Tomas O'Leary 26, Keith Earls 22 and Tommy Bowe 26. So I wouldn't be pessimistic about Ireland's future, not at all.

"There is always the fear of the unknown ahead but managed correctly, there is a wealth of talent out there and they now have great role models. The younger players have seen those role models, the likes of Brian O'Driscoll, playing at the top level and doing well and they believe they can do the same.

"So, I still think Irish rugby is in pretty robust health. They are pretty much at the top of the tree in provincial and Six Nations rugby and have been fairly consistent over the last five years."

But won't it inevitably dip? No, he says, why should it?

"As I have said, there is a lot of good young talent coming through. OK, there are some worrying areas, like any country is going to have. Australia went through that period in the scrums, yet two years later they had sorted the problem. They may not have enormous strength in depth in that department yet, but their best guys are good.

"So, it's just about having a bit of faith. And remember, we are talking about fine lines here. A team can improve and suddenly become more competitive.

"The Ireland national coaching team will now focus on the scrums because they will see them as an issue. Things may come from that.

"With the right work and preparation, Ireland may not have the best scrum in the world, but I don't think it's going to be a game-loser. And there are guys there. Tom Court is a good player, a late starter, but he has come on in all departments. And Mike Ross, if he is given the right opportunities in the right situation, is going to be a good scrummager for Ireland or a good back-up player."

Doesn't Cheika blame himself in part for this weakness because he repeatedly picked the likes of Stan Wright and CJ van der Linde ahead of Ross in the Leinster team last season?

"Maybe I have to take a little blame there for not pushing harder the development of some of the local players. But I actually think it is going to help them because there has been so much focus put on it now, especially after the two Heineken semi-finals.

"I know everybody is worried about it, but in fact I think it may not be that much of a problem."

Irish Independent

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