Tuesday 21 August 2018

'This is Test footy, you have got to win'

Cheika fired up for battle but insists Ireland are favourites in series opener

Australia head coach Michael Cheika speaks with the assembled crowd at Kelvin Grove State High School in Brisbane. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Australia head coach Michael Cheika speaks with the assembled crowd at Kelvin Grove State High School in Brisbane. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Michael Cheika pulled his hat down low over his face as he braved the icy cold conditions at Twickenham back in March, but even still he couldn't go incognito as he carried out a scouting mission on tomorrow's opponents.

His big frame and larger-than-life personality make it hard to blend in with the crowd and soon he was exchanging views with a couple of Ireland fans nearby.

By full-time, he was handing the jubilant members of the green army the favourites' tag and, even after watching the team blitz England on home soil, they were reluctant to take it.

Joe Schmidt would have been proud of them.

The Ireland coach is keen to avoid the idea that his side are expected to win this three-Test series, but an incredible year of wins that culminated in the Grand Slam makes it as hard for them to stay under the radar as it was for Cheika in Twickenham.

Chaps

"It's funny, I was sitting in Twickenham watching the game against England and I had my hat down and everything, there was Irish people everywhere," he recalled.

"There were these chaps from Munster next to me, drinking beers and having a great time, right?

"And then they worked out who I was afterwards, they were into me and having a great time.

"After the whistle, I said, 'Aw, you chaps will be favourites coming down to Australia after that', and they were like: 'Don't be saying that, no way, we can't be favourites!'

"That's what's different, this team has got a lot more self-belief around coming here and will believe that they'll be able to do it.

"For us, we're looking to become a great team together and show the opposition what we've got as well."

When he was working in Ireland, Cheika worked with players that formed part of the so-called 'Golden Generation' who delivered the Grand Slam in 2009.

But he reckons this team is the best that Ireland has produced.

"We're playing against a mighty opposition as well," he said.

"They're the best team Ireland has had since the start of their rugby history. They're coming down here as number two in the world.

"They can claim that they're underdogs as much as they like, but they're certainly going to be the favourites when you go off the back of the season they've had.

"We're going to need to have that team effort to be there but what I've seen this weekend, I've been really happy around team ethic, attitude, our connection together.

"The consistency of the way they play, they've got a lot of self-belief.

"They're coming here believing that they can win 3-0, no doubt about it from what I've read and seen.

"And that's how it's different."

Schmidt has refused to publicly burden his team with the target of a series win, but for all that both men are working towards the World Cup in 15 months' time.

Cheika is not shy about stating his aims. "This is Test footy, you've got to win. Every game," he said.

"Over the last couple of years we've done a lot of development. We've had 26, 27 debutants and I'd say half of our senior group of 20 core players, 10 of those guys would have debuted since '16 or '17.

"We've done this on purpose and we've taken some risks in that way because you're always playing against great opposition; England, Ireland, New Zealand, it's on every week.

"So to be able to prepare that, now I think we can start narrowing in on what our group is, getting them the games and you'll see this year there'll be significantly less debutants.

Experience

"There's still a couple that are pushing through and next year there might be a couple, only a couple realistically, but get more experience, lift the cap level up, lift the age level up but at the same time, every time we run out in that gold jersey we're representing Australia and that means that the country is waking up the next day feeling how well we've performed, my own kids included.

"So that demands maximum performance. And then with that I believe we can win."

When Cheika's assertion that his is the best Ireland team of them all is put to Schmidt, the New Zealander smiles and neatly sidesteps the idea.

"I don't really do opinions," he said.

"I'm boringly pragmatic, and I'd just say that this is an Irish side that the coaching staff are excited about putting out, and they're excited about seeing what they can achieve and we're excited about them rolling our sleeves up on Monday and trying to see what we've learned and put that into practice.

"Because I do think that this tour is going to be a process, and the process is going to work its way through three weeks, three really challenging weeks, and the shop window is those two 40 minutes once a week where you put those first and second halves back to back.

"But in and around that there's going to be a lot of work and hopefully little bits of progress we can make and little bits of confidence we can chip away at developing potential key players for the future."

His decision to start Joey Carbery and John Ryan speaks volumes for his confidence and, while he conceded that it was a risk to leave Johnny Sexton and Tadhg Furlong on the bench, he believes there is greater danger in relying too heavily on his front-line options.

While getting high-level experience into his back-up options is a priority, he'll privately be desperate to claim another piece of history by winning a first series here since 1979.

Whatever about being the best Irish team ever, Ireland have had the perfect year so far and their job is to prove Cheika right and justify the tag he's given them.

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport