At a barbecue at the home of Argentina great Felipe Contepomi in Buenos Aires two years ago, Michael Cheika laid his cards on the table.
The new Waratahs coach said that if he could lure wayward playmaker Kurtley Beale back to NSW, the Waratahs would be contenders for the Super Rugby crown in 2014. Contepomi was shocked.
“I said to Michael, ‘Kurtley is a great player but he has a lot of off the pitch problems’,” the 86-Test former Puma recalled.
“He said ‘No, I know how to deal with him, don’t worry’. And I saw him a year later and they had won the title and, for me, Kurtley Beale was the best player that season. That says so much about how much Michael can get out of people. They are playing for him, and for each other.”
It was not the first gamble Cheika made and it was not the last, especially when it came to Beale. One year after divulging his recruitment master plan over asado in Argentina, Cheika used his new power as Wallabies coach to resurrect Beale’s Test career.
It was as swift a turnaround as rugby had seen. One week Beale was mounting a defence of his behaviour in the Di Patston-Ewen McKenzie texting saga and three weeks later he was flying over to Europe to join the Wallabies on their first spring tour under Cheika.
“Will it divide (people) any less now than it will in June?,” Cheika said at the time of his decision to reinstate Beale barely a week after the dust had settled on the biggest scandal to hit the code in Australia.
“If I didn’t do it [enlist Beale], I’d only just be playing to the crowd as opposed to what my real job is here.
“I’ve got to stay true to what I believe as a coach at this level.”
That episode hit on a defining element in Cheika’s career. The former Randwick No.8 is not afraid to make an unpopular – in this case, deeply divisive – decision if he believes it is the right one.
For Contepomi, who played under Cheika at Leinster and at Stade Francais, there is a simple explanation for this side of his friend’s personality.
“He has the head of an Anglo-Saxon and the heart of a Latin,” Contepomi says.
“That’s why he can get the best out of the players and that to me is the beauty of what he does.”
Cheika has taken Australian rugby by storm or, perhaps more accurately, by the scruff of its neck, in the two and a half years since he returned from Europe.
To the heavily establishment old guard that was – still is – rugby in Australia, he has applied his anti-establishment, unorthodox ways. There was Beale’s NSW homecoming, his Wallabies redemption. There was the Waratahs overhaul, and the Australian Rugby Union backflip on overseas Test eligibility. There have been power plays behind closed doors, as well as the shopfront makeovers. Cheika has had a hand in it all.
“He’s obviously a very good coach in terms of rugby … but within a year of him arriving to Leinster I realised he was not only a rugby coach but a guy who looks after the person as a whole. He knows how to get the most out of everyone,” Contepomi says.
Amongst the glittering gems crowding the Cheika curriculum vitae sits a shorter stint at Stade Francais. His time there was beset by off-field drama and political manoeuvrings, leading to Cheika’s departure after two years.
“For him it was a learning curve,” Contepomi recalls.
“He was very loyal to the team, but he was being betrayed by two or three players and an assistant coach, who were blaming him for things not going so well.
“I said to him ‘Michael, I know this is happening’ and he said ‘No, no, I’m not worried, I know what to do’. He still doesn’t even regret those days there, he knows who was with him and who supported him and who betrayed him.”
Three years later, in his first Test coaching role, Cheika has led the Wallabies to a World Cup final. Even given the talent in the Australian Test side, their progress in less than a year represents an astonishing turnaround.
Randwick figure and World Cup-winning former Wallabies coach Bob Dwyer, who first knew Cheika as an eight-year-old belting around Coogee, says he is not surprised by the scale of the transformation.
“You can make change quickly if you’re accurate and you’re serious about it and you’re not embarrassed about constantly hammering the point, and you can imagine he doesn’t get too embarrassed by anything,” Dwyer says.
“By any normal standards, this is a pretty short about-face, but Michael has a quality work ethic. He always has.”
This could be the least-commented upon trait in the Wallabies coach, whose temper and passion have dominated his public persona. Contepomi recalls the man who walked into the Leinster clubhouse one day in 2005.
“The first impression was the workaholic guy who comes first into the office and leaves last, he worked so hard,” he says.
“I don’t call him a fixer, because fixing you fix it and leave and it might break again. He is more of a guy who has a vision. Wherever he goes he leaves something bigger and better than when he arrived.” ???
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