Michael Cheika’s father was his harshest critic as a rugby player but his courage in leaving Lebanon for a new life in Australia has been an example in hauling the Wallabies to the Rugby World Cup final.
The Wallabies coach says he hopes he has given this “no fear factor” to his players going into the fiery atmosphere of Saturday’s encounter with arch-rivals New Zealand.
Cheika’s father Joseph left Lebanon for Australia in 1950 and his mother followed 10 years later.
“I think everyone is inspired by their parents,” said 48-year-old Cheika.
“There you have someone who left his country with nothing and then rocked up in another country – and it was seven days on an aeroplane way back then – and then said ‘right, okay I’ve got to start from nothing,’ after being dropped off in Redfern Park (in Sydney).
“Well that sort of no fear factor is something I have really taken from my Dad and I like that quality and hope I’ve succeeded in passing that on to the lads.”
Cheika, the only coach to have won the Northern and Southern Hemisphere continental club trophies with Irish province Leinster and NSW Waratahs respectively, said there is a touch of Lebanon in the cultures in the Australia squad.
Cheika – who once had to pick out potential greyhound winners for a Sydney newspaper because the professional tipster was on strike – remarked a few years ago how Lebanon was one of the rare places where there was such a crossover of cultures and churches could be found beside mosques.
“Well, it (the squad) is certainly a diverse bunch of cultures no doubt about that,” said Cheika, who has a Zimbabwean in David Pocock, his captain Stephen Moore was born in Saudi Arabia of Irish parentage and several Pacific Islanders including Papua New Guinea-born scrum-half Will Genia.
“That is what Australia is, we’re all from different lands really originally,” Cheika said.
“There are a few originals (several generations of Australian ancestors) in there and each one respects the other and is working hard for the other and to make a better place and that is very much the way Australia has been built.”
Cheika, who was a no-nonsense No.8 for Sydney side Randwick but unlike luminaries such as 1991 World Cup winners Simon Poidevin and David Campese was never capped, said when he took over from Ewen McKenzie one year ago it was a struggle to rebuild squad morale.
Physical and psychological work “go hand in hand,” said Cheika.
“Nothing binds a team together mentally more than working hard, sweating a little, spilling a bit of blood together. And that builds a bit of respect from one to the other when they see their team-mates doing that.
“There is a fair bit of mental preparation as well.
“I think that at this level the top two inches are very very important and a lot of this is done before you even go out there.
“We’ve got to make sure we work on that on a day-to-day basis.”
Cheika, who also had a spell running a fashion company, laughed at suggestions he had been like Yul Brynner and Lee Marvin in Hollywood classics “The Magnificent Seven” and “The Dirty Dozen” in leaving no stone unturned since he took over to lure back the best talent playing abroad.
He got the Australian Rugby Union to change the rules so players abroad with over 60 caps – Toulon duo Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell – became eligible again.
He encouraged locks Dean Mumm and Kane Douglas, who did not have enough caps, to return to Australia to fight for their places.
“I think we made a plan of what we thought to make the game stronger and to play good rugby and also to get the supporters to buy back into the code.
“For them to enjoy the way we play, not necessarily always winning even if you want to all the time.
“Also to play a style we feel is the Australian way of playing but try to do it well not just because it is the Australian way.
“But also be adaptable so when the style doesn’t work you’ve got to be able to find a way that does.”
Cheika has said at times he regretted having left to play abroad himself rather than fight for a Test place. But on the flip-side he had taken a lot from his bohemian wanderings.
“It has been a big part of my life no doubt about it,” said Cheika.
“Learning about different people, different experiences, different cultures and how to fit in and get the best out of people and out of myself in that environment.
“I would never change that part of my life.”