By Nick Mulvenney
SYDNEY (Reuters) – Michael Cheika says the Wallabies will look to set the tone at the World Cup with a brand of old-fashioned Australian rugby as they look to put aside four years of turmoil with another run deep into the tournament.
Losing finalists in 2015, Australia has endured a torrid time on and off the field since the loss to the All Blacks at Twickenham and they are 18-1 outsiders with the bookmakers to win the trophy for the third time.
Cheika has always lived by the mantra “bring something different” in his coaching, however, and whatever happens in Japan, the 52-year-old is adamant his reconstructed Wallabies will be doing it their own way.
“I want to maybe think about setting the tone ourselves, maybe not react to what’s happening, just go in one direction and see what happens,” Cheika told Reuters.
“We’ve been bringing a bit of the old way of playing footy back. A little less predictable, and maybe I’m naive in that one, I don’t know, but I’ve really enjoyed it this year and the players have enjoyed it, too.”
While Cheika said it had been “an honour” to lead Australia through the last four years, he could be forgiven for not having enjoyed every minute of it.
The former back row enforcer took the job in 2014 after Ewen McKenzie’s sudden resignation and little over a year later took Australia to a third World Cup final.
That echoed Cheika’s record as an agent of change after taking over underperforming teams at Leinster and New South Wales Waratahs, quickly leading them to European Cup and Super Rugby titles respectively.
Winning the major club prize in both hemispheres remains a unique achievement but the last four years have presented a very different challenge, rejuvenating an ageing squad.
Cheika decided the best policy was to blood promising youngsters in the test arena and he paid the price in results with losing records in two of the three ensuing seasons.
The 2015 World Rugby Coach of the Year admits there were times when he questioned whether he had chosen the correct path.
“Definitely, for sure,” Cheika said. “And some things maybe I did get wrong, not necessarily with the people, more with the strategy.
“But there’s nothing wrong with being wrong as long as you identify it, admit it, and then make a change.”
Cheika said he had never experienced as much “genuine team work, camaraderie and mateship” in a squad as he has this year and said halftime in last year’s Rugby Championship test against Argentina in Salta had been the turning point.
Trailing the Pumas 31-7, a furious Cheika read the riot act to his team and they went back out and won 45-34 — a victory that might well have saved his job.
“I rattled the cage over the next few months to get us into a position where the things that were good, we kept, and the things we needed to change, we changed,” he recalled.
Those changes were manifest when the Wallabies took apart New Zealand 47-26 in Perth last month, scoring more points than any other team ever had against the All Blacks.
A 36-0 reverse in Auckland the following week ensured that no one got too carried away but Cheika did not think it was too significant a moment in the development of his team.
“In retrospect, there’s always definitive moments but I don’t think that’s one of them,” he said.
“That was just a signal saying ‘you can play good, now play good all of the time’.”
It did not help that Cheika’s rebuild took place against a background of turmoil off the field that reduced Australian rugby to possibly its lowest ebb in the eyes of the public.
The protracted eviction of Western Force from Super Rugby was followed by the equally drawn out sacking for controversial social media posts of Israel Folau, the world class fullback Cheika brought into the game at the Waratahs in 2013.
“All that stuff that’s happened over the last 18 months, it’s very personal that stuff for me as well, but we were able to show great resilience through all of it,” he said.
“Because everyone was telling us we were no good. If someone tells you you’re not good enough, you start to believe it.”
Cheika appeared almost liberated with his squad selected and another chance to pit his coaching against the best in the world close at hand.
“Maybe it gets challenged sometimes by dark periods,” he said of his approach.
“Because when it gets dark you can’t really see clearly, but I’m wide awake now.”
(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney; Editing by Ian Ransom)