Tuesday 21 May 2019

Alan Quinlan: Michael Cheika will relish chance to take Joe Schmidt's side down a peg or two

Head coach Michael Cheika with his players at the Australian captain’s run in Brisbane yesterday. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Head coach Michael Cheika with his players at the Australian captain’s run in Brisbane yesterday. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Alan Quinlan

Alan Quinlan

A couple of years ago Eddie Jones was asked to describe Michael Cheika in five words, and with very little hesitation, and a wide grin, he said: "Passionate, aggressive, cunning… good bloke".

"We think the why is the most important thing for a footballer, and it's for very old-school reasons. Every person, at some stage of their career, looks at themselves in the mirror and thinks, 'Why am I doing this? What's my sense of achievement? What am I playing for?'"

- Michael Cheika

'PlayersVoice', June 6, 2018


Cheika is all of the above, although he is widely known for being fiery in the coaching box and occasionally blowing too hot when the pressure really ramps up - but he seems to have a better handle on his emotions since entering his 50s just over 12 months ago.

That being said, Cheika will be feeling the heat and if he loses this first Test against Ireland, and subsequently the series, the coals will really be smouldering ahead of a Rugby Championship campaign which begins against the standard-bearing All Blacks in two months' time.

There is no doubt that Cheika is one of the best coaches in the world - his achievements in both hemispheres speak for themselves - but his win ratio of 55.5pc since taking over in October 2014 paints a rather average picture when you consider the Wallabies are seldom out of the top four in the world rankings.

Winning just seven of their 14 Tests since the start of 2017 is an abysmal return for a nation that has won the World Cup twice, and included among that septet of victories are successes against Fiji, Italy and Japan.

Remember, last time out they were humiliated in a 53-24 defeat at Murrayfield, a second loss to the Scots in six months.

The form of the Australian Super Rugby sides doesn't exactly help matters - four of the five New Zealand franchises have greater points tallies than the Waratahs, who currently lead the Australian Conference and only three weeks ago ended a 40-game losing streak for Australian sides against their Kiwi counterparts.

Australia have a great tradition of producing talented footballers but over the years they haven't always shown the fight to match their abilities with the ball, but to be fair to Cheika he could inject a brawling mentality in a sloth - an abrasive No 8 in his day, he is still probably the best fit for them.

It wasn't that long ago that Leinster were seen as a soft touch, but by the time Cheika was finished with them they had conquered Europe and were transformed along the way.

They were still a talented bunch capable of extraordinary moves with the ball, but crucially they were a unit that you could no longer bully into submission.

Cheika revels in adversity; he loves a challenge and any perceptions of him being one-dimensional are greatly misguided.

He is constantly evolving, making his players think, and emphasising that representing the Wallabies is a great honour and privilege, even if rugby union is struggling for traction in an Australian sporting landscape that has a survival-of-the-fittest mantra at its heart.

The Australian coach has publicly been smothering their Irish opponents with pleasant praise all week but you can be certain that behind closed doors the rhetoric has been delivered with ferocity. The experimental Ireland selection will only have added to that verbal arsenal.

This is fight-or-flight time for the Wallabies, and the concept of retreat is alien to Michael Cheika.

They haven't kicked on since winning the shortened Rugby Championship of 2015 and then reaching the World Cup final - if anything, they have regressed.

The arrival of the Grand Slam winners, a side they would usually expect to beat quite comfortably at home, is the perfect opportunity for Cheika's charges to make a statement 15 months out from Japan, and how the man of Lebanese extraction would love to take Ireland, and his successor at Leinster, down a peg or two. Australia will certainly not lack belief - that is simply endemic in their enviable sporting psyche - and they will also be able to draw on an excellent recent record at Suncorp Stadium, where under Cheika they have twice beaten South Africa, and just last October toppled New Zealand to end a run of seven successive losses against their imperious rivals.

Ireland are the more complete team but with world-class players like David Pocock, Michael Hooper and Israel Folau, combined with a talented support cast, and some trademark Cheika fire, this Wallabies outfit will give Ireland a real test. And that's exactly what Schmidt's side need.

Irish Independent

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