The All Blacks and Michael Cheika have history.
From the 2015 World Cup final, when the then Wallabies coach was captured at his side’s captain’s run at Twickenham brandishing a sheet of paper with apparent plans to “rattle” Kieran Read and target wings Julian Savea and Nehe Milner-Skudder, to his previous success against the All Blacks, the former Randwick loose forward is well known to New Zealand rugby followers.
Cheika’s three wins – in 2015, ’17 and ’19 – from 14 attempts against the All Blacks during his six-year Wallabies tenure doesn’t exactly point to him leading a stunning upset when he takes charge of Argentina in Christchurch this weekend.
But his presence alongside Christchurch-born former Kiwis back-rower David Kidwell, who ditched the Parramatta Eels to assume Argentina’s defence brief this year, and Felipe Contepomi in the Pumas new-look coaching team does add another layer of intrigue, and an element of the unknown.
“I know a lot of those guys over many years and they’ve got a lot of character,” Cheika said of resuming his rivalry with the All Blacks. “The last game in difficult circumstances they showed that.
“Every game is different but there’s some things that are traditionally built into the way they play. It’s one thing knowing, it’s another doing something about it. Everyone is a great analyst but you’ve then got to be a great activist and get out there and get it done.”
During his time guiding the Wallabies Cheika appeared increasingly frustrated and agitated, particularly in the fraught final stages of the 2019 World Cup after losing the quarterfinal to England. Despite that perception, though, he always intended to return to the spotlight.
“The thrill of being involved, the World Cup, the good and the bad of footy, the challenge of picking a team up when they’re down, all those things I really enjoy. When I finished with the Wallabies I never had a plan I was not going to coach again. I went and looked at different challenges, did some stuff with the league, to get myself in a space where I feel like I can come back better.
“I’m always very confident in who I am, what I want to be, and the road that gets there with all the ups and downs. I love all that part.”
Cheika was assistant to Mario Ledesma when the Pumas pulled off their memorable maiden victory over the All Blacks at Bankwest Stadium two years ago. Behind the scenes, he received plenty of plaudits for that breakthrough success, too.
Normal service resumed the following week when the All Blacks returned with a 38-0 shutout. Two more comfortable victories followed last year in Australia but the scars of that defeat remain.
Following Cheika’s promotion to head coach this year All Blacks counterpart Ian Foster, assistant to Steve Hansen for the 2015 World Cup triumph, was quick to note his presence in Christchurch this week.
“He’s a clever coach,” Foster said. “We had him last year with Argentina as well. He’s evolving his coaching group; he’s got a few new faces there in Contepomi and David Kidwell. They’re changing a few things – we’ve noticed a significant change from last year.
“They’ve got a group with lots of experience. Any team that can beat Aussie by 30 is doing pretty good. They play a good, fast style of rugby and they’ve always got a few tricks up their sleeve.
“It’s a great game for us to come back to. It’s great to be home but their performance in the last week means there’s no room for complacency at all.”
That performance was the record 48-17 victory over the severely injury-depleted Wallabies in San Juan, where the Pumas embraced their contestable kicking and excellence in the air to expose the inexperienced Australian back three.
Splitting two Tests with the Wallabies this month followed Argentina’s 2-1 success against Scotland in July – their first home series win in 15 years – to give Cheika a heartening 3-2 start to his Pumas tenure.
Cheika’s first away assignments with Argentina are sure to test his squad’s resolve as he attempts to develop a winning mentality, with Christchurch set to turn on a typically freezing winter’s night this Saturday, but his passionate persona seems a natural fit for the Latin exuberance.
“I really enjoy the attitude of these guys and their attitude towards playing rugby for their country. We want to bring that out and show that on match days,” Cheika said.
“We face a situation where we need to change history. We haven’t won here. “I want to be part of the coaching staff that beats New Zealand for the first time in New Zealand. The opportunity is there. We’re working towards the World Cup but along the way if you can change some things, make some landmarks, like the series against Scotland and the win against Australia those small things help everybody believe more and get more confidence and energy. It’s not easy to do but making firsts is always good.”
With Cheika on board, All Blacks captain Sam Cane is weary of the threat the Pumas pose to their quest to maintain significant improvements from their Ellis Park triumph that snapped a three-Test losing run and ultimately saved Foster’s position.
“I’ve played the Pumas a fair few times,” Cane said. “I reckon they’re one of the best defensive sides in the world when they get it right. They’re very hard to attack against and they cause us trouble at the breakdown. If we don’t kick well or have a good chase line they can spread the ball well. They’ve got some exciting backs with exceptional footwork so we’ve been doing our homework on them for sure.”