Rugby : fearless father inspires Wallaby coach Cheika
Joseph Cheika’s courage in leaving Lebanon over 60 years ago to travel alone to Australia is part of the fearless identity his son Michael is trying to bring to the Australian rugby team.
The 49-year-old Michael — who won the 2015 world coach award after turning a demoralised Wallaby outfit into World Cup finalists — has made identity the key to success on the field as well as building ties with Australian fans.
In an interview with AFP as Australia prepare for a crunch match against Ireland in Dublin on Saturday, he emphasised that his father’s approach was an important example to a young Australian side.
“There is a certain fearlessness which I associate with my old man,” he said.
“Blending all that with our indigenous culture are interwoven into our identity image, so everyone is clear enough what we are about when they (new players) come in.”
He believes that sense of identity is crucial when it comes to critical moments.
“When you are defending on your line it’s not about how you trained, it’s about who you are defending with on your line,” he said.
“They’re the important things I want to pass on to the lads.”
His father arrived in Australia virtually penniless and friendless and went from working for a sewing machine company to running his own business and receiving an award from Queen Elizabeth II.
He later married Therese, who emigrated from Lebanon to Australia carrying a letter from his family recommending he marry her.
“I don’t think it’s so much about what he achieved, I think it is more about the fearless approach to you leaving your family at 20,” said Cheika.
“To go to a place which you don’t know and may never see your family again, which he didn’t — his parents died — that takes courage.”
– Victoria Beckham link –
Cheika senior was often Michael’s fiercest critic when he was a robust No 8, even though the elder Cheika never even played rugby.
Cheika clearly learned from his father, showing from an early age he feared no one, a trait illustrated when playing for Randwick as a 20-year-old. He got bowled over by legendary All Black Wayne Shelford, but sprang back to his feet and snarled: “Is that all you’ve got, mate?”
Cheika is the only coach to have won both the northern hemisphere and southern hemisphere continental club trophies, with Leinster in 2009 (European Cup) and the Waratahs in 2014 (Super Rugby).
But he has an unconventional background for a national coach and enjoyed a highly successful career in the fashion industry, including the rights to sell Victoria Beckham jeans in Australia.
Fashion and rugby might be at opposite ends of the spectrum, but he says he learnt things from the former which are integral to his coaching philosophy.
“It was a total paradox to what I was doing at the weekends,” he said, grinning.
“No, I don’t think I’d fit into a pair of Victoria Beckham’s jeans, not quite my size!
“But it was also about managing people and people who aren’t normally in your domain and learning how to get the best out of them.
“It was about building relationships and that is absolutely key to what we (the Wallabies) do.”
– Strong Lebanon links –
Cheika has four children, three of them with Irish passports because they were born in Ireland, but he retains strong links to Lebanon and makes sure he returns as often as he can to the family’s home town of Ehden.
“I have a lot of family still there and my mother goes there for three months a year, although it is probably not an ideal holiday destination right now considering the countries it is between,” he said with his trademark dry humour.
“But I’ve been there before when it has been totally calm in Ehden and civil war in Tripoli (Lebanon) half an hour away.
“We get used to it as humans and it (Lebanon) is very much part of my heritage and I will pass it on to my kids, for sure.”