Belfast Telegraph

I can never repay Leinster for the faith they had in me, says Cheika

Good times: Former Leinster boss Michael Cheika with current Blues chief Leo Cullen
Good times: Former Leinster boss Michael Cheika with current Blues chief Leo Cullen

By Cian Tracey

Michael Cheika is running late. He is back in the city he once called home and he intends to soak up every minute of this flying visit.

The infectious enthusiasm remains and, as he apologises for the delay, Cheika explains that he had just been spending time with Felipe Contepomi.

Some friendships and bonds will last a lifetime and the charismatic Australian certainly made plenty of both during his five-year spell with Leinster.

To understand how deep Cheika's connection to Ireland is, he quickly reminds us that three of his four kids are in possession of Irish passports.

These days, the family live on the other side of the world, but there are constant reminders of the life they used to live while they were in Dublin.

"Once the big (Leinster) games are on TV, I'm up in the middle of the morning watching," Cheika smiled.

"My eldest, Simon, he's 10, his godfather is Mike Thompson, who is the masseur for Leinster.

"I took him to footy training the other day and he was wearing a Leinster jersey.

"He asked me to bring it here to get the signatures but I couldn't because I wouldn't see the players.

"So there is a very strong connection in our house. More for what they gave to me, what they gave to us... me as an individual when I first came here and then us as a family. The way we were treated and the way we are still treated whenever we come back here is special."

Tomorrow afternoon at the Aviva Stadium, Leinster will continue their quest to become the first team to win a fifth Champions Cup.

It was Cheika who helped kickstart the province's European dominance in 2009 and, although the legacy he created is clear to see, he is quick to deflect praise away from himself.

"I don't know if I started it all, there was plenty happening before me, but it was pretty good," the current Australia head coach recalled.

"We had a good time, we enjoyed ourselves as well.

"When I say that, that's not just the good times, that's the hard bits as well. Like the hard training, you have to learn to love that stuff.

"Maybe sometimes it's easier to think that it's all great afterwards, but me personally, I loved it all.

"When you get the group together living those ups and downs and the resilience it builds, you get pretty solid."

Given the jobs he has gone on to get with Stade Francais, the Waratahs and now the Wallabies, it's easy to forget that when Cheika first arrived in Ireland, Leinster CEO Mick Dawson took a major punt on him.

It's something that the 52-year-old has never forgotten, which makes him appreciate whatever time he gets to spend back in Ireland.

"It was more part of life than a coaching career," Cheika maintained.

"I don't think I've had a career. I never planned anything, it just happened - the good bits and the bad bits, and there were plenty of both here.

"I had to sort of work it all out as I went along and what they did was they afforded me the opportunity and then the space to do that.

"Yeah, I had to fight for some of that space but they also have to let you have it too. That kind of support doesn't come easy in a lot of clubs."

Cheika put a big emphasis on developing home-grown players in Leinster, and the results of that, which will continue to be seen for some time, have been emphatic to say the least.

"It's always an interesting conundrum in coaching. The 'to leave a legacy or not to leave a legacy, that is the question'.

"Often there is the more pragmatic way that says, 'Okay, we'll just get the results. Screw everything else, burn everything you can'.

"Joe (Schmidt) did a brilliant job when he came in and took over and took them to another level. Their players all went up to another level as well.

"One of the huge things was the development of the youth programmes - really in that period we got into the rest of the province and started growing that concept.

"The way that the younger players are filtering through year after year... you see the way the team is playing now, they can pretty much operate with two teams almost at different times and operate successfully.

"It's a pretty good stamp of approval for what they have been doing here."

The flying visit means that Cheika will not be around to take in Leinster's quarter-final against Ulster tomorrow, but he will have a close eye on it.

"I've experienced a few Heineken Cup derbies and both ends of the sword, and the one thing I've noticed is that there's a really different atmosphere around the game," he added.

"I remember the game at Croke Park (in 2009), I was walking out onto the field and I looked at Jono (Gibbes) and I said, 'Gibbes mate, what are we doing here? What are we doing in the middle of this?'

"That's what the derbies in Ireland do, they create a different atmosphere altogether than any other game.

"So, even though Leinster will be favourites, it's going to be a very even battle, just because of that fact in itself.

"Obviously not that I'll be here waving a flag, but if I was I'd be waving a blue one. It should be a really, really interesting game."

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