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Q&A with Michael Cheika

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Newly appointed Head Coach Michael Cheika speaks about why the Leicester Tigers role turned his head, his memories and hopes for Mattioli Woods Welford Road, the importance of supporters, the Gallagher Premiership and plenty more...

Was the English game, the Gallagher Premiership, something you have always wanted to be a part of?

I wasn’t looking at the Premiership and didn’t have the desire to coach in it until Leicester Tigers came to me; the opportunity to coach at Tigers and lead this group of players is what turned my head.                                

It has all happened relatively quickly and so to make that decision, it has to be based on it being a place that I would like to be a part of and a group that I want the chance to lead.

It is somewhere that I want to be.

You have coached against Tigers, in Leicester, and experienced Mattioli Woods Welford Road. What do you remember of it?

The one thing that you feel going there and hear players talking about, before and after, is that Mattioli Woods Welford Road is a horrible place to play as an away team.

A fortress is what I remember it being referred to.

So, on the flip side of that, as the home team, that is a weapon for you and it is such a great place to play.

There’s a really clear understanding of what you are going to get when you come to Leicester to play.

It will be nice to be on the other side of that and, now, it’s on me to help make that an even stronger thought for away teams, grow that and make it even tougher and harder to come to Mattioli Woods Welford Road and play against Tigers.

How about the Tigers supporters, what memories of them do you have and how important a part to fans play?

The identity of the team, for me, is irreversibly linked to the fans; when you can make fans have a clear identity of what your team stands for, that’s what makes them want to be your fans and want to support you through the good and the bad.

Yes, there’s a historical element to that – growing up in the area, the village and tribal feel around the club – but also that this team stands for something that I want to be a part of.

For me, as a fan of my teams, that’s how I feel. Coaches are fans of our own teams and so we understand it.

There is no game without the fans and that isn’t me saying the nice thing to get on side with people, it’s not anything new either. I have said it before and believe it, there is no game without fans, no club without fans – especially at Tigers.

Yes, there are other players around you and those who have come before, but when the team go out there, it’s the fans cheering, it’s the fans who are giving the players energy and that is a really important thing to me.

What do you make of the English game at the moment?

The standard in the Premiership is ever increasing.

Last year, you could see how close the battle was among the teams and that’s not just how the table finished. The quality of the rugby, the quality of the players in all teams is getting better and better.

There’s a great balance in this league between the English players and the top foreign players who are here alongside the best of England and the young players coming through.

There has always been high quality players in England, always, and the standard in this league is really, really high.

English teams have been well represented in the top tier of Europe for a while now and we want to get ourselves up to that place as well now, making sure that Leicester Tigers are back to competing for the biggest trophies.

How would you describe your approach to the game?

I feel and have always felt that you have to be true to your identity and honest to who you are as a team.

By nature, I have an attacking mentality. But, there are many ways to attack. There is attack with the ball, attack without the ball, attack in set pieces; it’s very much a front foot mentality I have towards the game.

It’s about getting your game on and letting the opposition deal with you.

Of course, you have to cater for the opposition but it’s about being the best you can be with what you have got and then letting the opposition deal with you.

So, I suppose, you do have to look at the resources available to you within different squads and where the strengths are, the type of players in the group, but – at the end of the day – it’s about getting on the front foot, being attacking minded has always been the way I want my teams to play.

After looking at your new group, what are your impressions of the current crop of Tigers players?

Everybody can see that it is a top-quality roster the club has.

I am not going to lie and say I know every single one of them down to their bones but that’s what I will do over the next few months, to learn how to get the best out of them.

The roster is only paper. It’s about how the team gels, how to put these really good players and characters together and get them playing in a way that they love it and a way they love going out there, together, and representing Leicester Tigers.

You have worked closely with Julián Montoya at Argentina in recent years. Was he someone you spoke to before signing?

Michael Cheika and Julián Montoya

It is tricky, you have got to keep that relationship in a different way – as coach and player – than just friends.

This has all happened very quickly and he’s obviously away, preparing for Test rugby with Argentina, so I wasn’t going to get in his face or distract him. But, I did speak to him, yes, about how he thinks I would fit.

I don’t want his appraisal on his teammates, I just wanted him to tell me if he believed I would be right for this job, right for the club, fit in the identity at Tigers and the lifestyle in Leicester to put the best kind of rugby out there for this club.

Because look, at the end of the day it isn’t about me just going to Leicester. I can go to Leicester and Leicester Tigers any time, for a visit. This, me coming to Tigers, is about being successful and for that to happen, you have got to have a good fit.

While it might still be too early to say, what are your markers for success for this team?

There are multiple markers you have at different levels; players, at different stages of their careers, that you want to see improve, but I want to make the players and fans happy, real happy

Now, when it all boils down to it, that usually comes with playing good rugby and winning games.

All the other things lead to that. I want Leicester Tigers competing on as many fronts as we can, every time we go out and play together.

Then, it’s just one step at a time, together, to build the foundations.

Every player and every team want to win trophies – you aren’t playing the game if you don’t want to win – but there is a difference between wanting to win and doing what’s necessary to win. That is what I’ll be doing.

After a while in the Test arena, how excited are you to be back in club rugby?

As good and great as international rugby is, and as huge an honour, the one down side is that you aren’t getting to do it every week.

I love being in it, whatever I am doing, completely in it – the week to week build up, the game day after game day after game day, which is what this opportunity presents

Yes, there will be transition for me back into that but I am getting those things organised now to make sure I am ready for that

This process has been quicker than any other – how did that play out and what helped it get resolved so quickly?

I spoke with the club last year, which was well publicised, and I do think having had the existing relationship helped in this past week to move the conversation on efficiently. I think it was a positive thing in this scenario to help get it moving.

I have had good relationship with the club going a long way back with different people at the club in the administration and the leadership, and even way back when we brought Leo [Cullen] and Shane [Jennings] back to Leinster from Leicester, I started building some relationships back then.

My young fella and I even came to a game last season, against Saracens, and were well looked after – which nobody had to do – but it was nice.

Having those connections with people in the club, definitely helped me make this decision quickly.

You know, one minute I was looking at going to rugby league back in Australia, which is something I have always said I wanted to do, but after that didn’t work out and you get an opportunity like this, I feel very fortunate.

A phone call from Leicester Tigers is one you take.

With only days until pre-season begins, how much of a part will you play from day one?

The programme that the players start on day one, on Monday, will have a strong input from me and include the basic principles that I believe are important in pre-season.

It’s important for me to be there as soon as possible, to set that agenda on how we are going to operate, how we are going to play rugby.

It won’t all be laid out on day one but there is an opportunity for those important things to be explained from the beginning and to make sure players, coaches and staff understand why we are doing the things we are doing.

I want everything explained, I want the players and people engaged, and want them all to know me from the start; the way I coach is about having the strong connection with the people around me and everybody knowing they are valued in exactly the same way.

What else would you say to players, coaches, staff and supporters out there, just three sleeps from the new campaign kicking off?

I want this to be my best coaching yet and the preparation and the way we lead the team, I want it to be at my best level.

If I can bring my best level, other people will bring their best level and good things will start to happen around us.

I am looking forward to the chance to meeting the fans, the sponsors, the staff and can begin talking about and working together – all of us – on how the club is going to perform and what we are going to look like this season.