Thursday 22 February 2018

If it's red we will hit it hard – Cheika

Waratahs coach Michael Cheika – seen here at training yesterday – has promised that his team will provide a stern test for the Lions
Waratahs coach Michael Cheika – seen here at training yesterday – has promised that his team will provide a stern test for the Lions
Conor George

Conor George

FOR a moment Michael Cheika might have been back at Leinster's RDS fortress planning for another interprovincial bruiser.

FOR a moment Michael Cheika might have been back at Leinster's RDS fortress planning for another interprovincial bruiser.

Cheika, of course, led Leinster to their first Heineken Cup success in 2008/09 and was instrumental in raising Leinster's profile, standing and helping them on their way to European dominance in club rugby.

His promise for Saturday's game between the Lions and his Waratahs outfit was a throwback to his five years with Leinster.

"If it's red we hit it. That's the promise for Saturday," he said. "You'll never soften them up because they're tough and they're hard, those lads.

"They are well conditioned, hard mentally: they've won Grand Slams, been in World Cup quarter-finals and semi-finals recently so they are mentally tough and they are physically tough.

"But we might be able to sow a few doubts and make them think twice. If we can just put a little bit of doubt in their minds, we are doing our bit to help Australia's cause."

Cheika took over Leinster in 2005/06, succeeding Declan Kidney and the Australian won a Celtic League title in 2007/08 with them. After leaving in 2010 he spent two years at Stade Francais before pitching up in New South Wales with the Waratahs last September.

The Waratahs are in a similar position to where Leinster were when Cheika took over in 2005 – "there are definite similarities" – and it's made all the more familiar when his senior assistant coach Alan Gaffney walks around the corner wearing a Waratahs tracksuit.

It's clearly a nod to the success the pair had with the Irish province and Gaffney is looking forward to renewing acquaintances with some of the players he coached with Munster, Leinster and Ireland during his time in the northern hemisphere.

"Drico (Brian O'Driscoll) has been excellent in his time on the paddock on this tour," said Gaffney.

BIASED

"It looked like he took a knock against the Combined Country side so we probably won't see him on Saturday night but he's looking rather good for the 13 shirt for that first Test.

"I'm biased of course but I'd also like to see Seanie (O'Brien) and Jamie Heaslip in a Lions Test back-row. I think they're having very good tours and are certainly playing well."

Both Gaffney and Cheika have promised that the Waratahs will subject the Lions to a stern examination on Saturday at the Allianz Stadium. "The Leinster lads will certainly know to expect a tough test, that's the way I coach," said Cheika.

"Unfortunately it looks like some of them won't be involved because they played on Tuesday, which is a pity.

"I had a couple of the boys primed to 'say hello' on my behalf! They'd know me well and wouldn't expect anything less. It will be surreal to coach against some of those players that I spent so much time with... surreal but great.

"I learned a lot from that experience with Leinster in how to bring a team round and implement a winning attitude and maybe bring back some of the old-school values in rugby that have been lost in the professional era.

"I think at Leinster they've got a perfect balance of that. You've only got to look at the way O'Driscoll's been playing on this tour to see what type of team they are. He's still at his best and he's what, 50 years of age now? Is he 51 or 52? He's still as strong as an ox, he's been brilliant.

"So I am proud of being involved with those guys but if the opportunity comes up to cut a few of them down we'll have a go at them!"

O'Driscoll's performances so far on tour have also caught Gaffney's eye and he expects the Ireland veteran to be in the Test team.

"He's been outstanding," Gaffney said. "His form so far on tour has been so good that I suspect he would be very hard to leave out of the 13 slot."

Australia coach Robbie Deans is almost certain to play James O'Connor at out-half in the Test series. Gaffney is an admirer but would prefer to see Kurtley Beale in the conductor's box with O'Connor out wide.

"Kurtley controls the game a lot better," he said. "O'Connor is an excellent player and I'd have him in my starting 15 – but out wide where he'd have more space.

"I know Kurtley has had his problems off the pitch but going forward for Australia I think he's the answer at 10. That's just me and Robbie Deans is probably looking for something different to what I'd be looking for but as an individual I think he's a great 10."

Cheika and Gaffney cut a contented duo at the Waratahs' Moore Park base in a damp and cold Sydney yesterday and there was a certain air of nostalgia to the session as they discussed their former players.

One such player who may feature when Warren Gatland names his starting team is Jonathan Sexton. The out-half has been nursing a hamstring strain but is expected to play some part in one of the two remaining warm-up games.

Cheika, of course, took some time to be convinced of Sexton's credentials and only belatedly added him to his Heineken Cup match-day squad in that seminal 2009 season.

When he was forced to turn to him as a replacement for the injured Felipe Contepomi in the semi-final win over Munster, he took to the pitch as if to the manor born.

"Jonathan's going very well," said Cheika. "The confidence in the player is there to see in the the way he's setting up the play, the way he's carrying the ball in both hands, and keeping the opposition on the back foot.

"I just think he's really matured into an excellent footballer and so he deserves it. He wants to fight his way to the top, even once he's at the top. I think we'll see the best come out of him on this tour."

It is possible that Saturday's match will see that sort of unveiling, with Sexton stepping into the commanding position that is expected of him in the upcoming Tests and establishing his pre-eminent position in this squad.

It seems logical that Gatland will want to test Sexton's fitness and at the same time will want to protect him for the critically important opening Test on Saturday week in Brisbane. Sexton, therefore, should play for at least the first half of Saturday's match and will then not be seen again for a week.

It remains to be seen whether the Lions coach will seek to exercise his preferred options in other areas in what will be the most meaningful challenge the Lions will face before they meet Australia.

Will he give his Welsh back-row forwards another chance to push their claims or, perhaps, ask Heaslip and O'Brien to confirm their brilliant form?

Whichever way you look at it, the upcoming game against Waratahs is chock-full of significance.

Irish Independent

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