Michael Cheika's transformation of Australia is nothing short of wondrous
It does Michael Cheika no disservice to acknowledge that he is an unlikely-looking Messiah.
“Not much hair on top, bit too much of a belly,” he says, when asked how he might describe himself. Some New Zealand journalists, scoping out the Wallabies’ team base in Teddington in search of insight into their alchemist of a head coach, have been even less kind.
“Some foreign guests at the hotel must have thought he had been contracted to clear out the drains,” one wrote.
There is an element of the unreconstructed bruiser about Cheika.
A talented No 8 in his day for Randwick, David Campese’s old club in Sydney, he once turned to the feared Kiwi Wayne Shelford – a back-rower so tough he played a Test against France with a torn scrotum – and asked: “Is that all you’ve got, mate?” He applies the same standards even to his most tireless scrappers, ignoring David Pocock’s squashed nose and two black eyes to exhort his king of the breakdown to ever greater feats. “I’m pretty hard on him,” he says, with a look that tells you he means it.
While fiercely authoritarian at times, Cheika, preparing for his third confrontation with the All Blacks in three months, has engineered a transformation of this Wallabies team that is nothing short of wondrous.
A year ago, they were a dysfunctional rabble, as former coach Ewan McKenzie resigned in the middle of a chaotic press conference in Brisbane and troubled wing Kurtley Beale faced a heavy fine for sending obscene text messages about team manager Di Patston.
The one consolation was that the first name in any discussion about McKenzie’s replacement was the same: Cheika.
He had, after all, performed wonders at the New South Wales Waratahs, becoming the first coach ever to add a Super Rugby title to the Heineken Cup that he had won with Leinster.
He also carried a reputation for enforcing the strictest codes of discipline. If anybody could bang the heads of this unruly mob together, Cheika could.
But he was a canny enough operator to understand that there was a limit to what he could achieve by belligerence alone. One of his first triumphs was to use his subtle negotiating skills, acquired during a stint as business manager for Australian fashion designer Colette Dinnigan, to reintegrate the wayward Beale into the national squad.
James Horwill, the former Wallabies captain who has since moved to Harlequins, could be forgiven for harbouring a grudge against Cheika.
He was central to a 27-19 victory over New Zealand in August but found himself passed over for World Cup selection, as Cheika explained that Australia needed locks with a stronger presence at the line-out. But it is a reflection of the coach’s deft diplomacy that Horwill displays no resentment. “Just by looking at Cheik’s track record, I understood that he was a coach who would come in and change things very quickly,” he says. “He has been able to harness the best of us. He makes it very clear what the team’s identity should be, and that you have to live by it.”
It is increasingly fashionable in rugby to talk of a collective identity – just ask Stuart Lancaster – but what precisely is the Cheika blueprint? For a primer, it helps to study his complex ancestry.
His father, Joseph, left Lebanon for Australia in 1950, with his mother following 10 years later, and he explains that a dash of paternal fearlessness has been injected into his Wallabies’ make-up.
“There you have someone who rocked up in another country – and it was seven days on an aeroplane back then – and then said, ‘OK I’ve got to start from nothing,’ after being dropped off in Redfern Park in Sydney. That ‘no-fear’ factor is something I have taken from my dad. I like that quality, and I hope that I’ve succeeded in passing it on to the lads.”
Stephen Moore, the hooker he chose as captain in preference to Michael Hooper, can vouch for this. Born in Saudi Arabia to Irish parents, Moore exemplifies the eclectic make-up of this Australia side and argues that Cheika has tapped into a strength in diversity.
“Sometimes in this game, there is a tendency to want everyone to do the same thing,” he says. “But Cheik allows different characters to express themselves. We don’t have any rules around the place.”
Instead, they have a mentor who is never more content than when he is hurling himself into a ruck in training. Cheika, according to sources in the Wallabies camp, is happily unorthodox in his methods, launching a tackle when his players least expect it or watching approvingly as forwards coach Mario Ledesma crawls into the tunnel of the scrum for a worm’s-eye view. He might be 48, but he has retained his No 8’s physique.
Four hours before Australia’s second Bledisloe Cup match this summer, I encountered him in the gym of the Crowne Plaza in Auckland, going through a work-out to put men half his age to shame.
Pete Betham, the Leicester wing who was a student of the Cheika way at the Waratahs, says: “He loves dishing it out. Outside of the media eye, he’s a different guy. I have tackled him a few times, he has kicked boys, he has been in scrums. Having a coach who does everything sends the message that we are all in it together.”
Cheika and Ledesma are known to reinforce this solidarity by shaking each player’s hand every morning. It is also a favourite Cheika ruse to improve his charges’ psychological endurance through the dubious joys of hill-running. “He is a massive fan of hills, any hill he can find,” Betham says.
“He loves the mental approach required. It probably does not make you any fitter, but mentally it will make you tougher. When I was in the Wallabies set-up, he told everyone, ‘I will find the biggest hill in Sydney and you are going to run up it.’ It’s great to see him doing it with you. It bonds the team.”
The All Blacks can be assured that the Wallabies they confront on Saturday have been painstakingly crafted in their coach’s tough-as-teak image.
For Cheika is nothing if not a stickler for detail. He has retained a practice from his Waratahs days where his players are instructed to line up 10 metres behind the kicker at restarts, to give them more powerful momentum when the ball is contested.
The theory is that an attack at full pelt will have gained an extra metre, and in a duel as tight as the one anticipated with New Zealand it could be a single metre that proves the difference.
Cheika grins at the suggestion that he has much in common with Lee Marvin in The Dirty Dozen, such is penchant for examining every possible permutation. “I just feel that nothing binds a team together more than working hard, sweating a little, spilling a bit of blood together,” he says, in one last powerful call to arms. “It builds respect from one to the other. We follow a style that we believe is the Australian way. Working hard to produce a better place for others: it is the way Australia itself was built.”