Despite being Australian, Michael Cheika (March 4, 1967) could pass for Argentine. He is the winner that Los Pumas are looking for, a passionate coach known for always challenging his players. Named the best coach in the world in 2015 for rebuilding an Australia in ashes and turning it into world runner-up in one year, he will seek to expand the celestial and white confines at the World Cup in France by embracing the emotional muscle of Latino culture. This Saturday (8:45 p.m., M+ Vamos) he faces a duel against Spain at the Madrid Metropolitan Stadium, which he removes the label of friendly.
Ask. What Argentina did you see through Ledesma or Contepomi?
Answer. I have had a relationship with them for a long time, I met Contepomi in 2005 and through him I got to know others like Roncero or Pichot. I think I have a good understanding of the mentality of the people and I really enjoy being with them. I like to be surrounded by good people.
P. What is that mentality like?
R. It is a true commitment to succeed despite the many obstacles that lie ahead. Within rugby and in the country there are always difficulties, but somehow they always manage to overcome them. And with the slightest complaints, they just move on. They are very passionate about sports, with their country, with their way of life. There are very clear traces that have passed from one generation to another.
P. Have those Pumas that were fourth in 2015 improved?
R. It is very difficult to speak in such a long term. Teams go in circles and Argentina have very different influences on how their team works. It is about getting the best out of each player with what they have learned over the years and putting it together in a style of play. We want to maintain the values of our history, but for this 2023 team to have its own identity.
P. Ledesma took on the challenge of winning the World Cup in 2023. Is your goal the same?
R. All journalists want their headline. I have never been asked: Are you going to not win? Of course we’re going to go there to win, but we’re going to prepare to be able to do it. We can always say that we are going to win and hope it happens, but it is very different to do the hard work. Everyone thinks they can win the tournament. Emotionally it’s fine, but what we’re trying to do is be ready to compete in every game.
P. How many teams can win the World Cup?
R. I have no idea. Honestly, all of them.
P. Chile is not going to win the tournament.
R. Growing up in the place that I grew up [Randwick, los suburbios de Sídney] I never thought I would be where I am. If you don’t respect all your rivals, in the end they teach you a lesson that you don’t want to learn. And this has already happened. Everyone is in the World Cup for a reason and every time you enter a field it is going to be a challenge: physical, mental and technical.
P. How does a coach evolve?
R. Through experiences and being self-aware, not thinking you have all the answers. I have had three experiences in World Cups [una en rugby league] and they have all given me something. My commitment is to be the best possible for my players because that way I give them the opportunity to give their best.
P. Is he better than the Cheika who was named the best coach in the world in 2015?
R. Yes, I am, definitely. I have learned a lot and I continue to do so since the beginning of the year. When you help others, you also learn at the same time.
P. How do you earn the respect of your players?
R. It is not a question of players, but of how you earn respect as a person. Having a clear identity: you want people to know who you are and what you stand for. And show them that you are there to help them with whatever they need. Sometimes you are hard on them, but with the goal of making them better, which is what everyone wants. You have to take the time to listen and understand. Respect is also earned by making courageous decisions, that’s our job.
P. Are there enough resources for rugby to grow in a country where football is religion?
R. You can always have more resources, you will never say that they are enough. Growth is exponential, it depends on how much you want to grow. Argentina has a great influence in South America. There is a very strong network of coaches who share all kinds of ideas and there are many developing players across the country. It is not idyllic, but the work is there. And we have a very young team. Yes, there is a lot of room for improvement, but pound for pound, if we can use that analogy, they are doing a terrific job of developing the sport.
P. How much do you want to grow?
R. It doesn’t depend on me, I’ve been here for a year, but I’d like to see them grow as much as possible because I see a lot of talent and passion. It’s not going to happen overnight, but when you work continuously you’re always going to get results. Resources are not as important as quality.
P. Spain aspires to be a Tier 1 country [el primer escalafón mundial]. It’s possible?
R. Of course, we have seen how the team has approached the World Cup. Teams are becoming more competitive all over the world. I hate that idea of Tier 1 and Tier 2, for me it doesn’t exist. Once you get out on the field, it’s a game and we’re all in the same category. I have no doubts that Spain can grow, especially due to its proximity to France plus the connection with Argentina through shared language and passports. As in everything, you need to invest, have the right people and a good plan for the future.
P. What can Latin countries contribute to the Anglo-Saxon culture of rugby?
R. We see him on and off the field. When we won in Australia there were more than a thousand euphoric Argentines, it was fantastic support, something vibrant. I think we will also see it in the World Cup. In the field, we are going to see a different rugby. The South Americans play with a different energy because they are different people. Cultural differences show up on the pitch, it’s about how coaches can channel that mentality. Used correctly, passion can be a real weapon.
P. What does the Madrid game mean?
we are playing a test-match, we are going to put on the light blue and white to face a growing country. We know the importance of each game because of the number of Argentines who will never have the opportunity to play it. When you are in a national team there are no friendlies, we will be known for our performances; not necessarily because of the results, but because of how we play. It’s important to me. We want to show that we can achieve a level of excellence through our way of doing things.
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