Michael Cheika is a misunderstood man says the Kiwi journalist who got closest to him at the 2015 World Cup.

Australia remains the dark horse contender in Japan and Cheika, a man who inflames opinions with his outbursts, will be centre stage.

It was during the 2015 tournament, which culminated with the All Blacks' victory at Twickenham, that Radio Sport commentator Elliott Smith got to see Cheika up close.

"Following the Wallabies for six weeks you learn a bit more about the person rather than relying on quotes here and there," said Smith, who will share the radio commentary box with Nigel Yalden in Japan.

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"I've got a lot of respect for Michael Cheika. He's great fun. I think New Zealand punters misread him.

"He's got a lot of passion for rugby, and a clear, absolute respect for the game and the teams in it. He's actually a very respectful sort of guy.

"Maybe a few things he's done have rubbed New Zealanders up the wrong way, but he was the first person to congratulate the All Blacks after the (2015 final) final whistle. He was very gracious.

"You often find that the public perception of people can be wrong.

"He's very passionate when he's watching the game, and TV cuts to him while he's throwing his microphone or whatever. But rugby needs more of those passionate people."

Smith's favourite memory of Cheika involves the Aussie coach's response when asked why he never referred to the All Blacks by that name.

"I'll call them the All Blacks if you want me to," Smith recalls Cheika spluttering, while grabbing his own throat and pretending he was dealing with a poltergeist.

Smith says: "He's an absolute character and the Aussies were great to deal with. They need him to coach the Wallabies for another 20 years."

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Australian coach Michael Cheika and the Wallabies. Photo / Photosport
Australian coach Michael Cheika and the Wallabies. Photo / Photosport

As for the All Blacks, Smith says there is a huge difference between the 2015 and 2019 teams.

"In 2015 it was Richie McCaw's team and to a lesser extent Dan Carter's team, and this is a different generation," Smith said.

"Richie was more than the captain – the bloke they looked to in every game and even off the park. Obviously Kieran Read is in the same category but you can never replace the way Richie McCaw was able to lead the team for so many years.

"But this is an exciting team and I still think they are best placed to win three knock out games in a row, which is essentially what a World Cup comes down to.

"Yes, there have been some troubles over the last year or so, but I would still back them over any other side to win those three games.

"They've still got people from the previous campaigns which they won, including coaching staff, and that experience counts for a lot."

As for a new McCaw-type influencer, Smith doesn't hesitate in giving Ardie Savea the nod.

"That can't be overstated…he's growing and growing," said Smith.

"I had my doubts that he could translate his form from Super Rugby, which is basically a different game.

"But the way it is shaping, if he plays well the All Blacks play well. That tended to be the case with McCaw.

"He also sounds like a unique sort of All Black…the way he has talked about things like fatherhood, he has his own clothing business. Like TJ Perenara, he is very much an All Black for 2019."

Smith often patrols the sidelines for radio commentaries, a place he calls the best seat in the house.

His favourite memories include a seven-man All Black scrum demolishing the Wallabies' pack at Eden Park and being close enough to feel what it meant to the players.

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An "electric" night to remember...Elliott Smith interviews Richie McCaw after the All Black legend's final home test. Photo / Photosport

"The other is when Richie McCaw left the park in the 2015 Bledisloe Cup, my first All Blacks test sideline," Smith says.

"While it hadn't been stated, everyone knew it was his last test on home soil.

"Standing ovations can be a dime a dozen but there was real energy to that one. I know the All Black coaches were standing as well. The feeling was electric."

The sidelines are kept clear at the World Cup, so Smith will join Yalden in the stands.

It will be the continuation of his dream job.

"I always wanted to be a sports journalist/commentator – I was too uncoordinated to play sport," says the Auckland-based Smith, who hails from Christchurch.

"I absolutely have to pinch myself sometimes. If someone had told me that before the age of 30 I would cover two World Cups and nearly 15 All Black tests already…I would have been over the moon."