Wallabies coach Michael Cheika praises 'phenomenal' Eddie Jones and England team

Wallabies coach Michael Cheika watches his team warm up during The Rugby Championship. Photo / Getty Images
Wallabies coach Michael Cheika watches his team warm up during The Rugby Championship. Photo / Getty Images

As a player, Michael Cheika was renowned as a phenomenal sledger. Potentially the greatest in the game according to some who knew him.

Yet as Australia coach, Cheika's public pronouncements have been disappointingly courteous, nice even. Caustic comments have been replaced by compliments, barbs by bouquets.

Speaking to The Daily Telegraph ahead of the eagerly anticipated three-Test series against England, Cheika describes Eddie Jones as a "phenomenal coach" who has made England look "ominous" once again. He picks out James Haskell, Jack Nowell and Maro Itoje for individual praise while he believes Ben Te'o has all the ingredients to be a successful cross codes convert.

Yet for all the pleasant proclamations, do not be fooled into thinking that coaching has somehow mellowed Cheika. The competitive fire still burns as fiercely as it ever did. A shattered glass door in the coaching box containing Cheika following a Waratahs defeat to the Brumbies in 2014 is testament to that.

Speak to him about the accomplishment of transforming an Australia team previously ridden by infighting and inconsistency to a World Cup final within 12 months and he simply says: "The reality was we still came away without the Cup. In the final, we could have played better which leaves a bitter taste in hindsight."

Michael Cheika rates young England lock Maro Itojie. Photo / Getty
Michael Cheika rates young England lock Maro Itojie. Photo / Getty

The opening Test against England in Brisbane on June 11 will be Australia's first match since that defeat to New Zealand and Cheika's sense of anticipation is palpable. "I can't wait for it," Cheika said. "It has been a long time since we have played any rugby. It is going to be a battle, but that's what the game is about: physicality and aggression. That's what fans want to see. They want to see that battle."

Yet a huge part of the public's fascination with the series, lies less with the teams than it does with their coaches. Jones and Cheika's history goes back 30 years to their days as teammates for the great Randwick team coached by Bob Dwyer.

Both are hewn from the same lump of Ayers Rock. Each approached the game with a point to prove to themselves and to anyone who doubted them. Jones has Japanese ancestry, Cheika Lebanese. "We did not come from established rugby backgrounds or traditional pathways," Cheika said. "We both come from ethnic backgrounds so there are some similarities there. We were both outsiders. Perhaps not anti-establishment, but at least outside it and that gives you a different perspective."

According to Dwyer, the similarities extended into their personalities. "Both of them would never give in, never take a backwards step," Dwyer said. "It is that sense of determination, but their other key character trait was this impish little boy's sense of humour and quick wit."

As Jones' junior by seven years, Cheika was frequently on the receiving end of that wit. "As I was the youngest in that team, I would get the blame for everything," Cheika said. "The happiest day of my life was when Warwick Waugh came into the team because he was younger than me.

"I always admired Eddie's style. He had that attitude but he also thought about the game. You could see that he would be a coach because he was a leader. He always told us what to do, especially us younger fellas."

By contrast, Cheika never saw himself as coach material and in some senses he still does not. It was only when David Campese, another Randwick teammate, invited him to help at Padova in 1999 that he was set upon that path. "I saw it as a chance to go and have a holiday," he says. Even now despite having become the first coach to have won both a European Cup and Super Rugby title, he speaks of coaching as if he is indulging a temporary pleasure.

"I have never seen it as a career," Cheika said. "There are people working hard out there, doing proper jobs. This is just a passion that I am privileged to be able to do. I am still trying to work out what job I am going to have to do when I grow up."

Dylan Hartley and Eddie Jones with the RBS Six Nations trophy. Photo / Getty
Dylan Hartley and Eddie Jones with the RBS Six Nations trophy. Photo / Getty

It has been a strange few months since the World Cup as Cheika has had to get used to taking a backseat as his Wallaby players returned to their club sides. You sense it was not a smooth transition. "It is the first time that I have ever not coached," Cheika said. "It took me a while to get my head around that fact. There's no point thinking like a coach right now. I am not coaching the players. They have got a coach. I just have to observe who needs to get in form, who has added to their game and what new players are on the scene."

The sides' last meeting, when Australia put England out of their own World Cup, will be irrelevant to the outcome of this series, according to Cheika. "Everything starts at zero again," Cheika said. "You have got to continually re-earn things. Everything we have done in in the past we have to re-earn and even better."

Cheika flew back to Europe to watch some of the Six Nations matches and left distinctly impressed by Jones' Grand Slam winners. The contrast to the team that was suffocated by the pressure of a home World Cup was stark. "When I saw them playing in the Six Nations, they were looking big and confident," Cheika said. "They were in the faces of the opposition. They looked like they were taller. That's an ominous sign

"Obviously Itoje is a stand-out player. There's a young guy who is playing phenomenally well. He seems to really belong there. Young guys add that bit of freshness to the squad but also I think Hartley coming back made a difference and a guy like James Haskell has been given a new lease of life in what he has to do."

Yet the player that Cheika seems most excited about seeing is Worcester-bound centre Te'o, who has seemingly been on his radar for a long time. "I remember talking to him before he went over to Leinster," Cheika said. "He has gone about his business very confidently. He is a tough, hard player. I know that for a fact.

"A big requisite of whether they will make that transition is whether they are prepared to work. How hungry they are. Ben is very eager to be successful. He is not just going to make more money, he wants to look at a different game. Once you have got that you usually have good material to work with."

As for Jones, Cheika has promised his former teammate a beer at the end of the series. "That's what the game is about. Professionalism has taken that away a bit, which I think is a great shame. But once the whistle blows, we have got nothing to do it with it. The real serious operators will be taking control of business and we'll be in the background."

- Daily Telegraph UK

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