For all the praise thrown his way for uniting a fractured team and bringing Australian rugby back from the dead, Michael Cheika’s biggest influence has been the quality of staff he’s gathered – and the freedom he’s given them.
In leading the Wallabies to Saturday’s World Cup final against New Zealand, where they will start heavy underdogs, Cheika has achieved the almost unthinkable considering where the team was when he took over four days before last year’s Spring Tour.
And his recruitment of the men who have shaped Australia’s defence, attack and scrum has been inspired.
The pack has been roundly praised since it demolished England during the pool games and scrum guru Mario Ledesma has been at the forefront of changing perceptions about what’s long been considered the Wallabies’ Achilles heel.
Soon after, it was defence coach Nathan Grey’s turn to step into the spotlight after his defensive schemes – which embodied his own ruthless nature without the ball – kept Wales tryless despite having two men sent to the sin-bin.
But against a New Zealand outfit which has conceded just four tries throughout the tournament, perhaps it will be the chance for attack coach Stephen Larkham to have his time in the sun – in charge of a team that has scored nine tries in two knock-out fixtures this tournament.
One of the finest five-eighth’s to play the game, Larkham is a World Cup hero in his own right having helped Australia to the 1999 crown, and current No.10 Bernard Foley credits him with helping change his game – which has turned the once-underrated figure into one of the players of the tournament.
Larkham’s fingerprints were all over Foley’s key plays in the semi-final victory over Argentina, with the 26-year-old’s looping cut-out pass to Adam Ashley-Cooper for Australia’s second try a carbon copy of those which delighted Australian fans a decade ago.
“Steve’s been really good with the way he manages games as a player and as a coach,” Foley explained.
“He’s very strategically sound with the way he goes about managing games and about his preparation, what he wants to do and how he visualising games unfolding.
“What to do during the game to keep the team in a good position and on the front foot.
“I’ve really learnt from that and also the basic skills he’s had that have been drummed into me – the passing and kicking game he was so sound at.
“He’s got a really smart rugby mind and he looks at it from a really creative angle.”
When Matt Giteau replicated it on the other side of the field for Ashley-Cooper’s second, the influence was undeniable.
Giteau, a teammate of Larkham’s at the 2003 and 2007 World Cups, said he’d become more vocal since his playing days – when he was as thoughtful as he is now, but also often the quietest and most laid-back in any group.
“He gets his messages across well, and the way he dissects teams is a real pleasure to watch,” Giteau said.