Michael Cheika versus Warren Gatland: Rugby World Cup battle of the hardmen

Australia’s coach has left opponents and squad members either shielding their nether regions or ‘scared shitless’ while his Wales counterpart in Pool A also knows character and leadership are not acquired by reading management books

Out in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney is Coogee Oval, home of Randwick rugby club, and the scene, in 1988, of one of the more famous little matches ever played in Australia, a game they still talk about nearly 30 years later. Randwick versus the All Blacks. A club from a suburb of 20,000 people against the reigning world champions. On the one side, Wayne “Buck” Shelford, John Kirwan, Grant Fox, Michael Jones and Sean Fitzpatrick. On the other, David Campese, Simon Poidevin and at the back of the pack, wearing No8, a lanky kid, 21 years old, called Michael Cheika.

Malcolm Knox, novelist, newspaperman and sometime club rugby player, has described what it was like to play against Cheika, a player “who made your heart sink as soon as you saw him warming up”. Knox wrote that “in anticipation of playing Cheika, your eyes shrank into their sockets and your testicles beat a swift tactical retreat into your abdomen. You were not thinking of practising your moves so much as clearing your lines of communication to the carrier of the magic water bottle. You knew you were in for a deeply unpleasant experience.”

Look carefully and you can see the scar on Cheika’s head from where he was once scalped by somebody’s studs in a ruck. Literally. “It didn’t seem to hurt that much but when I got up, my scalp flapped into my hands.” He needed 38 stitches. Of course “Buck” Shelford had his fair share of wounds, too. Eighteen months before that match against Randwick, Shelford played a Test against France, the Battle of Nantes, in which he famously had four teeth knocked out and his scrotum ripped open in the first quarter. He asked the physio to sew him up and then went out to finish the match.

They say that the first time Shelford hit Cheika, Cheika got back up and asked: “Is that all you’ve got?” Three days earlier, the All Blacks had marmalised Western Australia 60-3. They beat Randwick, too, 25-9, but it was a brutal match. In the final minutes, the All Blacks had a scrum deep in Randwick’s 22. A yard out, Shelford picked up the ball and drove forwards and down to the line. Cheika met him on the line, folded him up in a bear hug and forced him back six inches. No try. After the match was over, Shelford is supposed to have said that the All Blacks would never again make the mistake of playing Randwick on their home ground.

There is a story to be written about that Randwick pack, including, as it did Cheika, Eddie Jones and Ewen McKenzie, three of the most successful coaches in the modern game, despite the mess McKenzie left the Wallabies in, and which Cheika has had to clean up. Cheika is a well-travelled man, whose career has taken him to Italy, France and Ireland. There were the four years, too, spent working as a business manager in the fashion industry. While his coaching has been shaped by all those different experiences, its foundations lie in what he learned at Randwick, where he was part of a ruthless pack, in front of some dazzling backs, men such as Campese and Mark Ella. Rough edges all round, all sorts welcome just so long as they fronted up on game day. “The best learning that I ever got was being around the players I got to play with,” Cheika has said, “the coaches that I got to be coached by.”

This Saturday Cheika pitches his learning against that of Warren Gatland, as Australia take on Wales, two teams made in the mould of the men who coach them. In the past week, Gatland and Cheika have been amusingly deferential towards each other. “He is a genius,” Cheika said. “We are coming up against a master coach next weekend.” Asked to expand on that later in the week, his mind turned back to the Lions tour in 2013. “They played hard defence, hard defence, hard defence, all the lead-up games and then in the first Test they played a jockey defence.” Cheika’s Waratah’s side lost to the Lions 47-17, just before the first Test. “He is a very astute coach,” Cheika said. “He’ll set you up and try to sit you down.”

Gatland, no less canny, was having none of it. “He said the same the week before,” harking back to the match against Stuart Lancaster’s England. As for Cheika, Gatland reckons “he’s straight up, honest. Australians appreciate and respect that and he’s done a fantastic job.” In short, Gatland said, Cheika is “a world-class coach”. Neither wants to make the mistake of slighting the other before the match, both know that distracting headlines are the last thing their teams need. In March last year, before his Waratahs side took on the Queensland Reds, Fox broadcast footage from Cheika’s pre-match team talk. He was holding up a sketch of an unsmiling stickman, which had the words poker face written around it.

The scrum-half Nick Phipps explained later “there was a lot of chat out there” and Cheika had been urging the team “not to respond at any cracks at us or any chat on the field”. Australia have been doing a similar thing these past few weeks. Neither they, nor their coach, have given anything to the press, much less the opposition, before the match. Despite this Cheika has a wild temper, and has been caught smashing windows and fined for verbally assaulting a cameraman. Earlier this week, Jonny Sexton, who played under Cheika at Leinster, was asked why Cheika had done so well with the Wallabies. Sexton’s answer: “Because everyone’s probably scared shitless of him, if I was honest.”

There is, you would guess, a healthy respect between Cheika and Gatland, just as there was between Cheika and Shelford. Gatland can also be an intimidating man and is very much a product of the hard school he grew up in. He was part of a fierce front row at Waikato, a member of a pack that also included the former All Blacks coach John Mitchell.

It is no coincidence that these two successful teams, both with such strong identities, forged men who would come to have such influence on the wider game. Gatland and Cheika are grounded in the traditions of their old clubs. Both know that character is not something you acquire by reading management books, that leadership is not something you develop by attending seminars, that they are, instead, qualities you learn through playing the game, through winning and losing, week in, week out.

Don’t expect either side to fold, any more than you would either man to back down.


Andy Bull

The GuardianTramp

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