“I I feel like a child in a new school, meeting all my new friends for the first time,” smiles Mikhail Cheika. The former Wallabies coach is in Manchester where his team from Lebanon are preparing for Rugby World Cupand the 55-year-old Australian begins his month-long flirtation with a code of 13 people.
Some people exchange codes for money. Others do it to further their careers. Cheika, one of the most famous rugby coaches on the planet, isn’t interested either. His brief transition into the world of rugby league is much more personal and much more emotional.
Cheika was born and raised in Sydney, home to a large Lebanese community. He played junior rugby with the Sydney Roosters and the game was his first love before going on to a successful career as a player and coach in the union. He considered returning to the league many times, but the time and opportunity were never right. Until now.
Cheika’s parents are Lebanese immigrants and when the Lebanon Rugby Federation approached him to coach the Cedars at the World Cup, which was originally scheduled for last year before a 12-month postponement, he balked, even though he is now Argentina’s head coach. the Pumas allied team.
“It was too good to say no to,” he says. “I never thought I would be able to represent my family’s legacy in this way. I am incredibly proud of my Lebanese roots, as is my entire family. My old man is no more, he passed away, but I’m sure my mom will be passionate about the games and very proud that our family is doing something to bring a smile to the faces of the people of Lebanon.”
There is Lebanon in a group with New Zealand, Ireland and tournament debutants Jamaica. Many expect this to be a group they can qualify with given the NRL talent Cheika has been able to tap into. But the new Cedars coach has a much bigger priority than winning games. “It’s not even about that, it’s about Lebanon being on the world stage,” he says.
“To give the people of Lebanon an opportunity for an hour or two to get rid of the worries they face on a daily basis. They will see their colors, the cedar tree, their players trying to make Lebanon proud. We are a proud nation and Lebanese sports don’t really get many moments in the spotlight. It’s very important to me to take their worries away, even for a few hours, and give them a chance to smile.”
Cheika insists there are enough similarities between the two codes to make a short-term transition possible. However, he will rely on the experience of Australian rugby league stalwarts Matt King and Robbie Farr in his coaching staff ahead of Lebanon’s first game of the tournament against 2008 champions New Zealand in Warrington on Sunday.
How far can Lebanon go? Cheika is calm about it. “One thing I learned in the Rugby World Cup with Australia is that you can’t look too far ahead,” he admits. “Look too far ahead and you’ll miss the moment of what’s happening right now. We, Lebanon, are playing against the world’s number one ranked team on Sunday. For many of us, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
It is clear that family and his feelings for the Lebanese people are at the heart of Cheika’s move. “They’ve always supported me throughout my life, and I think my mom will be Lebanon’s biggest supporter for the next few weeks,” he says. “She really took it all to heart, as did the Lebanese communities in Australia.
“If you saw the team being sent off when they left for England, it was like they were leaving home for good. But they are heroes for the Lebanese people. Lebanon is a huge part of my life; I consider myself an Australian-Lebanese and to be a part of such an amazing tournament with the nation is incredible. It’s really something I never thought I’d be able to do given my commitments elsewhere.”
However, there is one problem Cheika should think about. Should Lebanon advance from Group C, their quarter-final will take place on the same weekend as the Argentinian side face England at Twickenham. Could he realistically coach two nations in two different sports just days apart? “I’ll tell you something… it would be a fun week,” he says, smiling again.
“We will find a way. This has already been negotiated, so there are no problems. If that happens, it’s a good problem to have, but all parties know the situation. It will be a busy but enjoyable few days.”