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SPORTS | 19-10-2023 13:05

Michael Cheika – behind the quips, a shrewd rugby brain

Michael Cheika and his larger than life persona has taken the Pumas to the semi-final – now Argentina must defeat New Zealand for a chance at the Webb Ellis trophy.

Were the Rugby World Cup to be decided on the personality of the coach, then Argentina's Michael Cheika and his larger than life persona would probably win.

The charismatic 56-year-old is a master of off-the-cuff remarks, something lacking in the head coaches of the other semi-finalists, the studious Jacques Nienaber, dry Ian Foster and sometimes dour Steve Borthwick.

However, behind the devil-may-care attitude is a top-class coach, who, as he did with Australia in 2015, has put together a side that has surprised many.

Whether like the Wallabies in 2015 he takes the Pumas to the final is dependent on them beating New Zealand, the team that denied his side the Webb Ellis trophy.

That latter feat earned him the World Coach of the Year award.

Cheika had already proven himself in winning both the northern hemisphere and southern hemisphere continental club trophies – the European Cup with Leinster in 2009 and the Super Rugby trophy with the Waratahs in 2014. He is the only coach to achieve that feat.

Cheika's spell with Australia ended after England whipped them in the 2019 quarter-finals but he has rediscovered his vim with Argentina since becoming assistant in 2020 and then head coach in 2022.

This multi-faceted aspect of his character has been nurtured by having other jobs, including a successful fashion business.

The latter might not seem a natural fit with Cheika, whose tie is usually loose at the throat and askew.

Fashion and rugby might be at opposite ends of the spectrum, but he says he learnt things from the former which are integral to his coaching philosophy.

"It was a total paradox to what I was doing at the weekends," he told AFP with a grin in 2016.

"No, I don't think I'd fit into a pair of Victoria Beckham's jeans, not quite my size!

"But it was also about managing people and people who aren't normally in your domain and learning how to get the best out of them.

"It was about building relationships."

 

'That takes courage'

Cheika is heavily influenced by his late father, Joseph.

Joseph left Lebanon for Australia in 1950 and Cheika's mother Therese followed 10 years later, carrying a letter from his family recommending he marry her.

"There you have someone who left his country with nothing," Cheika told AFP.

"Then he rocked up in another country – and it was seven days on an aeroplane back then – and said 'right, OK, I've got to start from nothing,' after being dropped off in Redfern Park [in Sydney].

"Well that sort of no fear factor is something I have really taken from my Dad."

Cheika senior arrived in Australia virtually penniless and friendless and went from working for a sewing machine company to running his own business and receiving an award from the late Queen Elizabeth II.

"I don't think it's so much about what he achieved, I think it is more about the fearless approach to you leaving your family at 20," said Cheika.

"To go to a place which you don't know and may never see your family again, which he didn't – his parents died – that takes courage."

This fearlessness came to the fore early on when Cheika was playing for renowned Sydney club Randwick.

The 20-year-old number eight got bowled over by legendary All Black Wayne Shelford, but sprang back to his feet and snarled: "Is that all you've got, mate?"

Cheika is fiercely proud of his heritage – "I class myself as Australian-Lebanese" he said when he coached Lebanon at the Rugby League World Cup last year– but if there is one thing he regrets it is having left to play abroad rather than fight for a Test place.

On the flip side he had taken a lot from his bohemian wanderings.

"It has been a big part of my life, no doubt about it," said Cheika.

"Learning about different people, different experiences, different cultures and how to fit in and get the best out of people and out of myself in that environment.

"I would never change that part of my life."

by Pirate Irwin, AFP

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