RWC 2015: Michael Cheika relishes battle to come after putting a smile back on Australian faces

'I found the smile had gone off the faces of a lot of the people involved'

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The Wallabies do not dump their head coaches quite as often as the Australian political classes divest themselves of their prime ministers: hell, there are perfectly clean-living folk down Canberra way who would scarcely manage a change of underpants with that kind of frequency. But the rugby job is a volatile one all the same, and there is always a chance of fun and games when Michael Cheika occupies the hot seat.

“I found the smile had gone off the faces of a lot of the people involved, inside and outside the group, on and off the paddock,” the highly articulate but undeniably pugnacious Sydneysider said, describing his first impressions of the Wallaby squad on succeeding Ewen McKenzie as commander-in-chief a little under a year ago. “I’d like to think some of the enjoyment is back, although I’m sure the players want to rip off my head at times.”

Sitting beside him and nodding sagely was Stephen Moore: hooker, captain, senior pro in the forward pack and all-round good guy. “Instability isn’t the way you want to go when you’re playing sport at international level,” the skipper commented. “I was unfortunate in missing a lot of the early games under Michael through injury, but I can still say that the clarity he’s given us over the last 12 months has been really good.”

Such clarity is a time-honoured Wallaby virtue: the seminal 1984 Grand Slammers had it, as did the world champions of 1991 and 1999. The men in green and gold showed it again in beating the All Blacks in Sydney a few weeks ago and it is one of the things that makes them so dangerous to England and Wales in this tournament’s “pool of death”.

Having coached Leinster to a first European title and guided the New South Wales Waratahs to a ground-breaking Super 15 triumph, Cheika is not the sort to go white in the face at the first sign of a challenge. Truth be told, he rather fancies the prospect of a full-on scrap for knockout qualification with two powerhouse Six Nations sides – not forgetting Fiji, the Pacific Nations champions and the Wallabies’ first opponents, whom he expects to prove a handful.

Acknowledging the unprecedentedly competitive nature of the group, he said: “We’re not the organisers of the tournament, so we just have to take the pool as it is. We’ve known the identity of our opponents for the last however long, so there are no surprises there. What it does do is give you a different lead-in to the competition. Nobody can feel comfortable in our group, which is as it should be in a World Cup.

“I just know that we’re ready to start playing footy,” Cheika added. “This is a great opportunity to show off our colours to the public back home – and the public will definitely be watching. Rugby union exists in a pretty competitive marketplace, but at the same time, Australians are pretty competitive people. It’s a World Cup, so we’ll have a lot of support.”