Cheika will get them back on track: Former Leinster hooker backs Wallabies' World Cup chances

Beth Newman Profile
by Beth Newman

He's an ex-Ireland hooker currently coaching in Wales but Bernard Jackman is as confident as anyone that Michael Cheika can pull the Wallabies out of their 2018 disarray in time for the Rugby World Cup.

What makes him so sure? Jackman has seen it before from Cheika firsthand, as part of Leinster's first European champion side, back in 2009.

Cheika often speaks about his experience in Leinster, where he helped turn an underperforming side into one of Europe’s heavy hitters - despite the doubts of many commentators.

Jackman joined the club the same season as Cheika in 2005, when a long-term build began. Success wasn’t immediate but changes began immediately.

Jackman said Cheika became an advocate for the team on and off the field, working to bring staff including a sports psychologist to the club and push for an upgrade to amateurish facilities.

“I think the big thing about him was you always felt that he was pushing - he'd do whatever it took to create a better environment for players and create a good culture,” he said.

“He had to get rid of some players and that was fine but once you showed passion and showed commitment, you never had an issue with him.

“He didn't really mind skill errors, it was more attitude errors and definitely he changed, he gave us a hard edge and he brought in a performance coach, a guy called Enda McNulty, to do work around sports psychology.

Leinster won their first Heineken Cup title in 2009. Photo: AFP“He would've been under pressure himself because we didn't win anything in 2005, 2006, 2007 and then we won a Magners League, which was the Pro 12.

“We won that again in 2008, which was a big step for us and then 2009 we won the Leinster's first Heineken Cup but I think anyone who played in that era would say Michael was a key driver in it.”

The ‘edge’ Jackman speaks of is a Cheika-ism that many Waratahs fans would remember from his seasons with NSW and it’s one that this Wallabies outfit has been at times accused of lacking, without some of the enforcers of some of Cheika’s previous sides.

Jackman, who is now based in Wales coaching the Dragons, said things weren’t smooth from day one but Cheika was constantly adapting his approach for improvement.

“It wasn't without hiccups and it wasn't without bad days but I think Michael's admirable quality is he doesn't let losses or defeats define him," Jackman said.

“He goes back in the following Monday, re-energised with a plan and whether that's to stick to the old plan, he'll sell that pretty well to the players, and if it's not, if it's a slight change, he'll try something new to find the right message and that's what happened with us.

“I mean, he had to probably try multiple different ways to get his message across but once we did that, we were up and running and the team became successful.

Jackman provides an interesting insight into a coach who has been criticised by Australian pundits and fans for being too stubborn in both strategy and selections.

"I know players who played with him at Stade Francais as well and they definitely, I would never have heard him being criticised for being inflexible or quite rigid," he said.

"In actual fact, I think he's very open to trying different things and problem is he's just got quite a young group at the moment and at Test level, that's difficult, they learn on the job and short-term results are difficult."

Bernard Jackman in action for Leinster. Photo: Getty ImagesJackman said he hadn’t followed the Australian public's criticism of Cheika, but he has no doubt in Cheika’s ability to turn things around, and turn them around quickly.

“You don't know when it's going to click or when a team are going to get into the zone but you've got to trust the fact - I'm sure with the Waratahs it didn't all go to plan immediately and I know at Leinster it didn't all go to plan immediately and he showed really good resilience," he said.

“That adversity he's had in his career will make him stronger.

“When you're strong like he is , you'll see it through and you'll last.”

After a 3-10 return from their Tests in the past 12 months, including losses to New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina, Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales, the Wallabies and Cheika have been under increasing  external pressure.

Jackman said the run of defeats isn't necessarily be indicative of a 2019 World Cup campaign that's already cactus.

“This set of results and this period will make them stronger and I think that there's no point being number one in the world a year out from a World Cup if you're not being exposed to the weaknesses that are in your game,” he said.

"It's good for them to come here and even though it looks like a backwards step, you're basically facing a different set of challenges and that'll be good for them.

"Michael, he'll get them back on track, I have no doubt. I haven't really been following the media in Australia but I know I will back him wholeheartedly.

“Players play for him and I think he's kind of mid-cycle at the moment, that's the issue at the moment for him but there's still time to get that group improving.... that group will be a hell of a lot better in a year's time.”

The Wallabies take on Italy in Padova on Saturday November 17, kicking off at 3pm local, Sunday 1am AEDT, LIVE on bein Sports channel 515 and SBS.