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SPORTS | 05-09-2023 15:21

'Connected' coach Michael Cheika ready to lead Los Pumas to World Cup glory

Argentina is quietly preparing for the France 2023 Rugby World Cup without making waves and without being considered favourites. That's just the way Michael Cheika likes it.

Argentina is quietly preparing for the France 2023 Rugby World Cup without making waves and without being considered among favourites. That's just the way Michael Cheika likes it.

The Pumas have undergone a transformation over the past 18 months under the influence of Cheika, an adventurous coach loved by his players. Fans and team bosses are aware that in the past he has been able to transform outsiders into champions. 

Cheika admitted it recently: he doesn't even know Argentina's World Rugby ranking (sixth at the end of August). The Pumas: not far away but not so close? In any case, it is not lost on him that he has cultivated a certain tendency to lead "teams that suffer turnovers" of the ball.

At Leinster, historically second in Irish rugby behind Munster, Cheika won his first European Cup in 2009. At Australia's Waratahs he led them to win Super Rugby in 2014, a title they had been chasing for 18 years. And for the Wallabies, who he took over when they were adrift, he led them to the Rugby Championship title in 2015 and the 2015 World Cup final. However, he had had a more complicated spell at Stade Français between 2010 and 2012.

His trademark? A "connection," a close proximity with the players, but not without authority. An understanding of what they are or can be. 

From George Smith to Brian O'Driscoll to Felipe Contepomi (now his assistant coach), many of the great players who worked with him described the 56-year-old as a good coach and a good guy. He is a good listener and a good talker.

This flexibility is perhaps due to his life as a rugby globetrotter. Cheika, the son of Lebanese immigrants in Australia, a polyglot, played in that country, in France (CASG Paris), in Italy (Livorno), in Ireland and in Japan, and that's not forgetting his participation in the Lebanese national XIII.

A former number eight, Cheika did not shine as a player. But who did well in business and because of that had never planned to become a full-time coach. Until David Campese, one fine day in 1999, offered him to come and try his luck in Padua, his former club. 

"In the north of Italy, near Venice? It seemed like a great idea for a holiday," laughs Cheika, who now admits to loving "the tactical aspect, building a team, being able to put it back together again."

Leading players (as at Leinster, or the Waratahs) "to achieve things they've never achieved before is a very rewarding, very strong moment ... it's quite addictive," he recently explained to Australia's GBR podcast. 

With Los Pumas, who had been disoriented by two years of unrest linked to Covid and deprived of competition with the Jaguares, Cheika sought to find himself again and rely on his legendary passion: "I don't want them to stop being Argentine!" He seeks to bring a touch of control, or variety, to a non-negotiable aggressiveness. 

"I'm lucky to have two sides," the Aussie-Lebanese explained when he took charge of the team. "One Latin and emotional, the other more Anglo-Saxon and cold. The key is to apply each one at the right time. Argentines have that emotional side that I want them to keep, it's part of their identity. When and how to use it wisely is the key to turning it into a decisive weapon."

Puma third row Santiago Grondona, says Cheika "brought us confidence and gave us a lot of confidence.The team is getting better every day, it is more solid. Michael had a lot to do with that."

Ambition and confidence are key if Cheika is to take the Pumas "to a place they've never been before."

"In all humility, our goal at the World Cup is to get to October 28 [the final] and win it," says Grondona.

"Michael worked with us mentally conveying confidence, the notion that we have a great team, great players," said centre Matías Moroni, who will be playing in his third World Cup.  "He started to show us that if we want to, we can." 

And, indeed, the Pumas could. In 18 months under Cheika's leadership, they have achieved "historic" feats: victory over the All Blacks in New Zealand (August 2022), over England at Twickenham (November 2022), over the Wallabies in Australia (July 2023). 

Being in a wide-open Group D, with England looking rarely as vulnerable as ever before, will not have damaged this confidence.

by Philippe Bernes-Lasserre, AFP

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