Super Rugby
Michael Cheika fluent in success
August 1, 2014
Michael Cheika has revived the Waratahs in his two seasons at the franchise © Getty Images

Michael Cheika built a successful clothing company, has dabbled in restaurants, speaks four languages, and once dazzled Collette Dinnigan in French to secure a job - utterly unqualified - with the Australian fashion designer. Now he has New South Wales Waratahs on the cusp of history heading into the Super Rugby final against the Crusaders at ANZ Stadium in Sydney on Saturday.

Cheika coaches the Waratahs for love not money. He is well compensated, yes, but his passion, injured Waratahs captain Dave Dennis says, is the beauty of it all. A self-made millionaire, Cheika can do virtually as he pleases but chooses to coach the Waratahs, the greatest under-achievers in Super Rugby.

"He's a family man. He's got four kids. He's got a life outside of rugby where he's got friends and family," Dennis said. "He grew up in the east so he's got a lot of connections, so he's got a really good balance. But when he walks in the door at the Waratahs, his one focus is to win games of football and he's clear in how he wants to do that.

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"I think that's earned him a lot of respect from the players. The boys have really responded well to that. He's so passionate about winning, not because he needs it to keep his job - because he's told us before he doesn't need to be here, he can do other things with his life. But he cares about the Waratahs and he cares about winning and he hasn't just said that, he has shown it in his actions."

Indeed, he has.

Cheika infamously smashed a door in the visitor's coaching box during an early-round loss to the Brumbies, and he has spent much of the season under a suspended ban for verbally abusing a cameraman during another defeat in Durban against the Sharks.

The former hardman No.8's passion was also on display to fans on Saturday night, when fascinating TV footage captured Cheika using a golf club - a driver of course - to ram home his point in his dressing-room address before semi-final success over the Brumbies. Dennis, though, says it's not quite Cheika's style to strike fear into his charges. What you see is not always what you get.

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"I don't think the boys are scared. They enjoy it because he's a good motivator," Dennis said. "There's days where he'll come in and have a good joke with the boys. The reality is, it's football. It's not life or death. But when he needs to be, he'll be pretty stern and honest and all you want as a player is brute honesty, and he's brought that.You know where you stand. You know what you've got to do to either get picked or stay in the team."

If Cheika is ever harsh to individuals, it's only because he has the team's best interests at heart.

"It's not to have a personal attack on him. He just wants you to be a better player. He wants the team to be better," Dennis said. "That's really resonated with the boys."

Cheika, 47, makes no apologies for his hard edge and admits it stems from his financial security.

"What that independence allows you to do is not to compromise," he said after being appointed Waratahs coach at the end of 2012. "You are able to make decisions based on what you think is right for the team and not worry that you could lose your job."

With that team-first approach, Cheika made the tough decision at season's start to retain Bernard Foley at five-eighth despite luring Wallabies playmaker Kurtley Beale back to Sydney from Melbourne Rebels. Foley is now the competition's leading points scorer, the Wallabies No.10, and eternally grateful.

"'Cheik' was really good in that regard," Foley said. "I was the incumbent and it was good to have that backing."

Cheika backs his assistant coaches, Nathan Grey and Daryl Gibson, in the same manner.

"His strengths are motivating, identifying talent and bringing the team together," Dennis said. "Then the technical side of things, he leaves up to Greysy and Daryl. 'Cheik' knows where he sits and can manage things around him."

Cheika, the son of Lebanese migrants, was born and bred in Coogee, where he played more than 300 games for Randwick, winning seven Shute Shield titles with the Galloping Greens alongside the Ella brothers and David Campese.

It was Campese who first plotted Cheika's path into coaching when he urged his old team-mate to apply for the job as head coach of Padova in Italy. Cheika got the job and hasn't looked back. Subsequent successful stints at Randwick and Leinster, guiding the Irish team featuring former Wallabies captain and Waratahs flanker Rocky Elsom to Heineken Cup glory in 2009, and a less successful two years at Stade Francais preceded his Waratahs appointment.

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Intent on putting bums back on seat with running rugby - "sink or swim" - Cheika has the Tahs on the verge of winning their first Super Rugby championship in the most stylish of fashion. The Waratahs' class of 2014 have scored the most tries, the most points and most attacking bonus points in the competition, and Dennis attributes much of the transformation to Cheika stamping his authority - and style - from the outset.

"He's got a strong personality. Everyone who's met him knows that," Dennis said. "But he's very comfortable in his own skin and clear in what he wants and doesn't shirk at anyone or anything to change that.

"From day one when he came into the club, he told us what he expected, what he wanted, where he saw us going and he's stuck by that every single day he's been at the club. He has not changed. He went through a tough period through the middle of the year with SANZAR but he still hasn't gone away from what he believes in and that's really struck a strong cord with the players."

That's because whether Cheika is speaking English, French, Italian or Arabic, he's fluent in success.

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