Interview: Cheika ‘is a contradiction’

Date published: June 16 2016

“The best way to describe Michael is he’s a bit of a contradiction. People like to put people in a box and say, he’s like this, or he’s like that – Michael’s very much a contradiction.”

In a professional career spanning 14 years and two rugby codes, Ben MacDougall ran, tackled and grafted for an awful lot of coaches.

As a whippersnapper, Warren Ryan and Craig Bellamy, totemic figures of the NRL, in Newcastle and Melbourne respectively, were his mentors.

In 2004, he swapped league for union, and a venture to Scotland where he was marshalled by Todd Blackadder at Edinburgh Gunners, and Frank Hadden with the national team.

Some of these men, he says, were fearsome motivators, captivating their players through intensity and drive; others shrewd thinkers whose intellectual flair was their greatest asset.

Very rarely, MacDougall asserts, does a player encounter a coach who marries rollicking blood-and-thunder with cerebral dexterity.

So when, in 2013, having hung up his boots and began exploring a career in coaching, MacDougall was invited by Michael Cheika to experience life in the Waratahs camp, he encountered a bruising yet caring oxymoron of a man.

For three weeks, MacDougall shadowed Cheika during his first season at the Tahs’ helm – a Super Rugby campaign that ended with an unspectacular ninth-place finish.

A year later, they conquered the tournament for the first time, Cheika stamping his mark all over the competition with his relentless, spellbinding brand of rugby.

“He created a new culture within the training group and spoke about the team having a strong identity,” says MacDougall.

“Whatever team he’s coached, he’s had an ability to instil a clear identity.

“The thing I found really interesting was, at times he can be really abrasive and direct, and that can sometimes get people offside.

“He’s got the full support of the team and you could tell the players really respected Michael. I think they had quite an affection for him as well.

“It’s unusual to be respected and liked at the same time – I’ve had coaches where you’ve got a bit of fear factor, you’re always on edge, and you have other coaches who are more approachable, you’re at ease with them so they give you confidence.

“I haven’t really seen a coach of Michael’s calibre that’s been able to bring everything to the job.”

Much has been written about Cheika the coach, and Cheika the man. His ferocious presence in the back row of the fabled Randwick side of the late 1980s – a team that also featured David Campese, Simon Poidevin, and a certain Eddie Jones.

His reputation as a maverick with little hesitation to flout authority when required. His entrepreneurship in the fashion industry. His multilingual capacities, his vehement loyalty to players like Kurtley Beale and Michael Hooper, pilloried for misdemeanours and perceived poor form respectively, and his want to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with his Wallabies and bellow the national anthem.

Some drills and methods MacDougall describes seem almost draconian in their execution, but always, the ex-centre stresses, with a clear design and purpose.

“You don’t get too many coaches that have come from that kind of playing background, being so tough, move into coaching and also be intellectual coaches,” he says.

“Michael’s been able to squeeze the best out of his players – that comes from having their respect, and getting them to train hard every session.

“What I witnessed, the contact and physicality in some of those sessions – to me, he likened it to a kickboxer when they kick a bit of wood in the shin, and over time that shin bone gets stronger.

“Having that ability to not break your players, but test them physically and mentally, push them to that point.

“There was a drill where they’d roll the ball into the middle of two guys, and they’d just scrap for the ball. That combat, that physicality – almost brutality – but also a real high skill level, it’s very rare you get that fusion of physicality and skill level together.”

MacDougall was struck too by Cheika’s precious ability to “simplify the complicated” – to un-weave the intricate tapestry of technical skill and tactical nous, and deliver it to his players in bespoke, bitesize chunks.

“Every session he gave me a sheet of paper with what was going to be happening – very detailed,” he says, shuffling around to find one such example.

“Ruck height, read anticipation, base contact, tackle support, tackle evasion,” he reads.

“I’ve been involved with other coaches who have all these structures in place, but you kind of get lost in the detail. But his stuff feels symmetrical, it all seems to fit.

“Even though he has a lot of detail, he’s able to simplify it and the players know within that system who has to do what.

“That’s what came across to me; everyone had a real clarity on what they had to do. I mean, every player was crystal clear in what their role was and what was expected of them.

“And it was pretty much black and white if they didn’t do it. There was no grey area. I saw one day, a player was late to training and he got the shreds ripped off him.

“Every individual’s taking ownership for what’s happening in the team. Once you have that type of bind with every single player, then you get a group that’s extremely tight.”

When things repeatedly go awry in elite sport, we naturally decry the apparent intransigence of the coaches responsible. Why stick with a broken system? Why not try something new?

How often, for instance, has Warren Gatland been castigated for his unwavering commitment to Wales’ abrasive game-plan?

According to MacDougall, whose Glaswegian grandfather enabled him to represent Scotland, that’s not a barb that can be levelled at Cheika.

“He had a clear structure of how he wanted the Waratahs to play,” says MacDougall. “But he was very open minded, always looking to improve: add this, do this, change this.

“A lot of good coaches at the top make up their minds – this is my system, this is what I’m going to do – and they put the blinkers on and don’t want to hear anything else. And when that doesn’t work they continue down that track and keep believing in that system.

“Michael’s always looking to progress things; he’s never happy with the status quo. He always wants more.

“He feels he should always be getting improvements, and that’s a big part of his success. He’s willing to change his approach in order to get things going differently.”

Cheika’s influence on the Wallabies has run deep – areas of traditional weakness, particularly around the set-piece, have been ruthlessly analysed, and the off-field shenanigans and enforced curfews that blighted the reign of predecessor Ewen McKenzie are a distant memory.

Eight months ago, Australia savaged England on their own patch, masterfully dumping them out of the World Cup.

This England are a profoundly different beast, though, and after Saturday’s historic 39-28 victory in Brisbane, the scoreboard reads: Eddie Jones 1-0 Michael Cheika in the three-Test showdown.

“If anything I think Eddie Jones beat them at their own game,” muses MacDougall. “They did some very unexpected, un-England-like things in the game.

“The first 20 minutes, England looked like they were struggling. They were here, there and everywhere.

“Eddie made a couple of changes – and to turn that match around, I was scratching my head. England just fought and scrapped their way back into the game.

“Look at Australia’s match against the All Blacks in the (World Cup) final: they played the situation, the occasion a lot better than us. We made a couple of unforced errors; we overplayed our hand a bit when we didn’t necessarily need to.

“I don’t believe you can play that high risk, high reward style at Test level all the time.

“If you look at Jake White, he won’t play any rugby inside his own 22 or even his own half. They’ll kick and kick and kick, and only play inside the opposition half.

“That’s typical South Africa, but in terms of how Australia play, we run the ball from deep, and I think that’s sometimes to our detriment.

“We’ve got to learn to be a little more England-like or South Africa-like, and be a little more conservative at different times.

“In terms of Michael’s coaching, maybe that could be his Achilles heel. Australian teams, if we don’t get that go-forward, we sometimes have a tendency to get too lateral in attack.

“Coming up against a coach like Eddie Jones could be Michael’s biggest, toughest challenge to date.”

by Jamie Lyall