Cheika’s Wallabies’ rise and rise

Just over a year ago Michael Cheika took control of a Wallabies team that had slumped to a low ebb amid scandal and the sudden resignation of their coach.

Fast forward 12 months and Cheika and his men find themselves on the cusp of history when they face the All Blacks in the Rugby World Cup final at Twickenham on Saturday (Sunday 0300AEDT).

The transformation Cheika has overseen is nothing short of remarkable since he inherited a dysfunctional squad beset by disciplinary problems and reeling from a split between players and management which opened during the 2014 Rugby Championship.

Having emerged from the toughest pool in World Cup history by toppling England and Wales – and ousting the hosts in record-breaking fashion – the Wallabies stand one win away from replacing the All Blacks as world champions.

It was a prospect that seemed unthinkable on October 18 last year when Ewen McKenzie dramatically quit following the 29-28 loss to New Zealand in Brisbane.

Cheika, who’d guided NSW Waratahs to a maiden Super Rugby title three months earlier, was hastily parachuted into the role and on a plane for the Spring Tour in Europe three days later.

Using the tour to restore harmony and enjoyment, try new combinations and stamp his style, Cheika was unfazed that the Wallabies lost three of their four matches – the worst by a touring Australian side for almost a decade.

Defeat brings change and Cheika spent much of his time in Europe putting together a blueprint that would restore pride to the gold jersey.

Midway through this year his persuasive powers came to the fore when a previously steadfast Australian Rugby Union agreed to relax eligibility rules for the most experienced overseas-based players.

It opened the door for world-class talents such as Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell to return to the international fold – both now key figures in the starting team for the final.

With the second row long a problem area for Australia, the return of Kane Douglas from Leinster one season into a three-year deal was expedited and Dean Mumm came back from Exeter.

Likewise the scrum was a perennial weakness – until Cheika introduced Argentine scrum guru Mario Ledesma.

Legendary playmaker Stephen Larkham was added as attack coach, joining his former World Cup-winning teammate and defence boss Nathan Grey.

Then the coaching work began in earnest and led to a first Rugby Championship title since 2011, with the cheery on the cake a stunning win over the All Blacks in Sydney in August as the David Pocock-Michael Hooper starting combo was unleashed for the first time.

Although the return match in Auckland a week later ended in a heavy defeat for a much-changed line-up, Cheika was unconcerned and the Wallabies arrived in the UK brimming with confidence after an intensive camp in the US.

It proved to well placed as they clambered over Fiji, Uruguay, England and Wales before completing their path to the final by holding out Scotland and Argentina.

Cheika’s’s resurrection of the Wallabies has been lauded throughout Europe and there have even been calls in the local media for England to attempt to poach him following their humiliating first-round World Cup exit on home soil.

His success comes as no surprise to Leinster Rugby chief executive Mick Dawson, who appointed Cheika as head coach of the Irish powerhouse in 2006 where he enjoyed five successful years – culminating in the province’s first ever European Cup triumph in 2009.

“He was recommended to us by (former Waratahs assistant coach) Alan Gaffney,” Dawson told AAP.

“Alan told us some great things about him but we had to do some due diligence as we know he (Gaffney) is biased towards his Randwick men.

“So I also spoke to Bob Dwyer and he told me Michael would coach Australia one day and that we should snap him up.”

Cheika inherited a star-studded side that included Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy and Jonathan Sexton, but it was viewed as mentally weak following a number of big-game fadeouts.

“I was kind of looking around and thinking we were in disarray,” said O’Driscoll earlier this year.

“We had had four coaches in four years in Leinster, and it was just a mess. I’d been a rugby player for 11 years and had won nothing.

“Then Michael Cheika came in and he gave us structures. He built a mentality and an environment that we were able to perform in – he was exactly what we needed.”

Dawson admitted Cheika, now vying for world coach of the year honours, could be a forceful presence around the players and the boardroom but said his man-management skills were what marked him out as an exceptional mentor and now a successful Wallabies coach.

“He’s a very smart man who’s done well in business outside of rugby,” he said.

“But it’s his ability to to get people to buy into what he is doing that makes him stand out.

“Getting Giteau and Mitchell back was a masterstroke. Then all of a sudden Kane (Douglas) gets homesick overnight when he’s happily playing for us and before you know it he’s back in the Wallabies team. What Michael wants, Michael gets.

“But history will treat him well in Leinster, he laid the foundation as and we’ve built more success on the back of them.

“He did exactly the same job at the Waratahs who, like us, are a big-city team and with star names, and he made them winners.

“It takes a strong person to deal with that pressure and succeed and he’s doing it again at the World Cup.”

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