“I feel like a kid in a new school, meeting all my new friends for the first time,” Michael Cheika says, smiling. The former Wallabies coach is in Manchester where his Lebanon team are preparing for the Rugby League World Cup, and the 55-year-old Australian is beginning his month-long flirtation with the 13-man code.
Some individuals switch codes for money. Others do it to further their careers. Cheika, one of the most recognisable rugby coaches on the planet, isn’t interested in either. His brief transition into the world of rugby league is much more personal and far more emotional.
Cheika was born and raised in Sydney, where there is an enormous Lebanese community. He played rugby league as a junior growing up with Sydney Roosters, and the game was his first love before going on to forge a successful career as a player and coach in union. He has considered switching back to league on numerous occasions, but the timing and the opportunity has never been right. Until now.
Cheika’s parents are Lebanese immigrants and when Lebanon’s rugby federation approached him about coaching the Cedars at the World Cup, originally set for last year before the 12-month postponement, he could not resist, even though he is currently employed as the head coach of Argentina’s union team, the Pumas.
“It was too good to say no to,” he says. “I never thought I’d be able to represent my family’s heritage in this way. I’m incredibly proud of my Lebanese roots, as are my entire family. My old man isn’t here anymore, he passed away, but my mum will be glued to the games I’m sure, and really proud that our family is doing something to try and put a smile on the faces of the people of Lebanon.”
Lebanon are in a group with New Zealand, Ireland and tournament debutants Jamaica. It is a pool many expect them to qualify from given the NRL talent Cheika has been able to call on. But there is a much more important priority for the new Cedars coach than winning games. “It’s not even about that first and foremost, it’s about the fact Lebanon is there, on the world stage,” he says.
“Giving the people of Lebanon the chance to have an hour or two free of the worries that they face on a daily basis. They’ll see their colours, the cedar tree, their players trying to make Lebanon proud. We’re a proud nation and Lebanese sport doesn’t really get many moments in the spotlight like this. To take their worries away, even for just a few hours, and give them something to smile about means a lot to me.”
Cheika insists that there are sufficient similarities between the two codes which makes a short-term switch feasible. He will, however, be relying on the experience of Australian rugby league stalwarts Matt King and Robbie Farah in his coaching staff before Lebanon’s first game of the tournament against the 2008 champions, New Zealand, in Warrington on Sunday.
How far can Lebanon go? Cheika is relaxed about that. “One thing I’ve learned from being involved in Rugby World Cups with Australia is that you don’t look too far ahead,” he admits. “Look too far ahead and you’re missing enjoying the moment of what is happening right now. We, Lebanon, are playing against the world ranked No 1 side on Sunday. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity for lots of us.”
It is clear that family, and his feelings towards the Lebanese people, are at the heart of this move for Cheika. “They have always supported me throughout my life, and I think my mum will be Lebanon’s biggest fan for the next few weeks,” he says. “She’s really taken all of this to heart, as have the Lebanese communities in Australia.
“If you’d seen the send-off the team got when they left for England, it was like they were leaving home forever. But they’re heroes to the Lebanese people. Lebanon is a huge part of my life; I class myself as Australian-Lebanese and to be part of such an amazing tournament with the nation is incredible. It’s really something I never thought I’d get to do given my commitments elsewhere.”
There is one problem for Cheika to consider, though. Should Lebanon get out of Group C, their quarter-final will take place on the same weekend his Argentina side face England at Twickenham. Could he realistically coach two nations, in two different sports, just days apart? “I tell you something … that would be a fun week,” he says, smiling again.
“We’ll find a way. The talks have been held already about that so there’s no problem there. If it happens, then it’s a good problem to have but all parties know the situation. It’ll be a busy few days, but an enjoyable few days.”