Michael Cheika might be the busiest man in world rugby. He has less than a half hour gap in his schedule for a phone call with the Guardian, during which he audibly munches on his lunch. It’s not surprising he’s so pressed for time.
On Friday night (Saturday AEDT) he will coach Lebanon against his native Australia in their Rugby League World Cup quarter-final in Huddersfield. Two days later he’ll oversee his Argentina side as they take on England at Twickenham in a dress rehearsal for next year’s union World Cup.
It’s dizzying enough keeping track of all the ongoing events and international tours if you’re a fan or a journalist, let alone the head coach of two different countries in two different codes. Cheika’s mind palace must be a hodgepodge of scattered playbooks and scrawled team sheets. How does he maintain any order?
“It’s actually really simple, it’s not that big a deal,” he explains between mouthfuls of something crunchy. “I know both teams back to front so it’s just about time management. When I’m with one team, I’m fully with them. The scheduling allows me to keep track of things. It’s only this week that my unique situation has gotten a lot of attention.”
In July this year, 19 months after his appointment with Lebanon, Cheika was elevated from a previous assistant role with the Pumas to the main job. He started his tenure with a 2-1 series win over Scotland and claimed two famous triumphs in the Rugby Championship – a 48-17 thumping of Australia in San Juan and Argentina’s first victory in New Zealand, beating the All Blacks 25-18 in Christchurch.
Now eighth on World Rugby’s rankings, Argentina are a team on the rise. They’ve got a favourable draw at next year’s World Cup in France and could conceivably make the semi-finals. “We’re in a good place,” Cheika says. “This game [against England] is a big one for us as we meet them in the group stage next year. We’re confident we can beat them.”
The Cedars, as Lebanon’s league side are dubbed, are tracking on a different path. Partly filled with amateurs, their stay in England will surely conclude by the weekend as they meet the indomitable force of Australia. But Cheika, the son of working-class Lebanese immigrants who settled in Sydney in the 1960s, is motivated by factors beyond the boundary.
“From day one it’s been more than just about the footy,” he says. “It’s about my heritage and making a difference. This is an opportunity to do something special. All the boys in the team feel that. We know we’re representing something bigger than ourselves.”
Most of the 25-man squad were born in Australia. Only two were born in Lebanon and they’ve yet to play a game in the competition. Toufic El-Hajj and Atef Hamdan might not have contributed with ball in hand, and likely won’t take the field on Friday, but their role has been crucial to Cheika’s mission of growing the game in his ancestral homeland.
Along with three non-travelling reserves, El-Hajj and Hamdan have helped educate their teammates about life back in Lebanon, which has the third-highest inflation rate in the world and is a place where more than 80% of residents don’t have access to basic rights, according to Human Rights Watch. It’s not just a lesson in misery, though: these players have taught the rest to sing the national anthem while connecting them with their cultural roots.
“I’ve still got family back there and I visit as often as I can,” Cheika says. “We’ve made sure that we’re aware of the family trees and get the balance right between the country where we come from and the one we now live in.
Because we love both countries, but for different reasons. Patriotism isn’t this fixed thing. Ultimately I’d want the boys who were born in Australia to play for Australia. That’s the goal. That’s the pinnacle of the sport. Guys like Mitchell [Moses, of the Parramatta Eels] and Adam [Doueihi, the West Tigers five-eighth]. I’d love to see them play for Australia if they got selected. Josh Mansour played for Lebanon before he played for Australia and so did Robbie Farah.”
It’s on the pitch, though, that Cheika will be judged. On that front he feels better equipped than he’s ever been. “I think I’m a better coach across both codes as a result of what’s going on,” he says. “The fundamentals are the same and man-management is transferable too. I might be with one team and think of an attack off first phase ball with the other. But that’s all long-term stuff. You can’t adjust your plans on the fly. It takes time to build a strategy.”
Like an inclusive father with children in separate homes, he gets his boys together whenever he can. Last month Argentina assembled for a three-day camp in Manchester and joined their Lebanese step-brothers for dinner. Middle Eastern mezze was the starter; the main course was an Argentinian lamb shank in a rich sauce.
“Everyone was happy,” Cheika says. “That’s the beauty of sport. It brings people together from different cultures and backgrounds. Our [Lebanese] team is the best example of that.”