Regrets? He’s got a few – but Michael Cheika otherwise has the fondest of memories from his five years as Wallabies coach.
Typically honest to a fault, Cheika has peeled back the layers to reveal the softer side that only those closest to him – including hard-core rugby journalists who’ve been in the trenches with him and not (as he often sees it) necessarily against him.
“Am I satisfied in the end, mate? No, because I wanted to win a Bledisloe and the World Cup,” Cheika said on Fox League.
“I wasn’t able to do that and that hurts me, personally, because I really value the supporter on the street and I know that’s what they want. I see them.
“When you’re coaching your national team, it’s very different to club footy. No.1, you’re not a recruiter, you’re a selector.
“So the next thing you really feel, the day after the game … all the kids, even the people who aren’t rugby people – because you’re representing Australia – they’re feeling how you played the night before.
“You have a big win, everyone’s pumped. You go for recovery, they’re all high-fiving ya – (saying) ‘good on ya’.
“Then the next (game) – I see it in my own family; you know, the kids, they’re all dressed in their jerseys and then the next morning, if we lose, they’re unhappy.
“So I feel it in my own family.”
Happily – but hastily – thrown in to the hot seat following Ewen McKenzie’s dramatic departure in 2014, Cheika endured a rollercoaster five-year tenure.
World Rugby’s coach of the year after guiding the unfancied Wallabies to the World Cup final in 2015, then belittled on the other side of the Tasman the next (remember those pretty poor clown caricature jokes from New Zealand?)
He was also often harshly treated by World Rugby officials.
Yet Cheika – the survivor and proud immigrant hard-worker, has emerged from his tumultuous tenure with impressive dignity after falling on his sword following Australia’s World Cup quarter-final exit in Japan last October.
“Honoured. Grateful,” he said when asked of his abiding memories as Wallabies coach.
“For a kid like me, to think that he’d have the opportunity to coach the Wallabies, I would have never imagined. I’ve always been a sort of an outsider in rugby, outside of the establishment.
“So to get that opportunity – and to consider the circumstances that we’ve had going on in Australian rugby the last five years – we’ve always represented with maximum courage.
“Sometimes we weren’t at our best, sometimes we had to have terrible halves, had to make comebacks and we had some great wins as well.
“Even 2019, we had a great win over New Zealand in Perth.”
Cheika, now an assistant coach at the Sydney Roosters under long-time friend Trent Robinson, conceded the Wallabies lacked consistency during his tenure – but rightfully offered some explanations for that.
“At the end of the day, the Wallabies are a result of our preparations in Super Rugby and they’ve been difficult because we’ve had a lot going on,” he said.
“Whether it was Perth (with the Western Force’s demise in 2017) on the outside and then players going overseas etcetera and the format of the competition.
“But then when the guys got together, I think they really played hard for Australia every single time.
“I’m the first to know that that’s not perfect, but (I’m) always proud to be a part of that, some of the great wins and also for being there after some of the losses … being able to get the team back up.
“In coaching right now, you’ve got to be a professional at being able to turn negatives into a positive and that was something I really loved doing with those lads because they responded a lot.
“I think a lot of them played above their potential for where they are in their cycle.”