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Repair man needs time to work magic with Waratahs

SPEND a little time talking to Michael Cheika, take a look at his eight years in Europe - at the successes, the failures and the legacies he left - and an outline begins to form of what the Waratahs might look like in three years.

It is the Waratahs in 2015. There is no new trophy in the cabinet. Not yet. It is not that the man himself thinks it impossible. A glance at the talent in the squad says it can't be far away.

But the facts say it took four years for Cheika to bring home the Heineken Cup with Irish province Leinster in 2009, their first of three European club championship titles.

During those four years there were highs and lows. A Heineken Cup semi-final in the first season, a quarter-final knockout in the second, no finals at all in the third and the breakthrough victory in the fourth. Celtic League wins kept fans hopeful throughout but the big one took long, hard graft.

''We learnt on the run, we learnt through adversity, we took some beatings,'' Cheika says of that time.

''It was the losses that changed us more than the wins, the big important losses. That's what makes the difference, because when things are going good, it's pretty easy to run down the hill but, when you've got to run up the hill, that's when you need to put in.''


Many observers see parallels between Leinster and NSW. Both are ''big city teams'' with big budgets, big players and big expectations. Cheika doesn't mind a bit of pressure - you sense he lives for the thrill of performing in spite of it - but he does not buy into the perception of Sydney and NSW supporters as the toughest, browbeaten and most cynical market in the country.

''Maybe I'm naive but I don't think [it is that way],'' he says. ''People say the crowd might be cynical but I don't see it as a bad thing … if they're worried about it that much that is a good thing, because that means they really want us to do well.''

How does a supporter base worn down by underperformance muster enough faith to see through another coach's multi-year plan?

''Maybe they weren't putting in enough last year, I don't know, but it's about leaving no stone unturned to make sure that you represent the people that support you and yourselves to the best of your ability,'' Cheika says.

The former Randwick No.8 says the next three years will feature change and blood, sweat and tears. That's what happened at Leinster. ''[There was] changing personnel in the office, in the playing squad, according to what was required,'' Cheika says. ''Changing the culture, changing values, changing the way we administered. And I'm not claiming that I knew that was actually the case at the time. I was just doing them and they happened to be all falling into place, in as far as they were the right things to do.''

The change has already started at Moore Park. Defence coach Dean Mumm has moved on and there will be further changes among Cheika's personnel. The playing roster he inherited will be worked and tested to within an inch of its life. The coming pre-season promises thrills and spills as players get to know the coach and vice versa. Forget what you saw this season, the only claim on selection is performance.

''He who performs will play,'' Cheika says. ''There are some times where you have to play guys into form and there are some times when you have to react to a performance, where a guy needs to have competition put against him to lift him. It's the coach's skill to be able to pick when the right time is to stick with a guy and play him through or change him around for someone else who's knocking on the door.''

That applies to the halves combination, a vexed issue for the Waratahs following the departures of Kurtley Beale and Luke Burgess. Cheika believes being competitive internally is the key to being competitive externally. There are three players competing for both positions.

The No.7 jersey is another interesting issue. Pat McCutcheon had a season cruelled by injury this year but has the temperament - equal parts class and ''dog'' - Cheika wants to build a team around. Then there's Michael Hooper, the star signing, a hard-running fetcher around whom swirls the trademark buzz of a ''next big thing''. New recruits and a new coach. The only way to figure out the shape of the next three years is to dive into them.

''The first points of success for me will be to have everyone respecting each other fully, right throughout the organisation, understanding what our identity is, what we're playing for, and living that lifestyle,'' Cheika says.

Next comes buying into a new style of play and playing that way consistently. There is no mention of a Super Rugby title.

''If you're looking for me to say something like 'I want to win the competition', the reality is that everyone wants that,'' he says.

''But I've got too much experience to know that just saying you're going to win or want to win is not enough. [It] is the end result of getting all the stuff you do to prepare - whether it be physical, mental or rugby-wise - right. Only then can you earn the right to get a bit of luck or help to win in the very last game.''

It goes back to the Leinster experiment. Copping a beating, getting up, changing and charging forward. It is the Waratahs in 2015. There is no new trophy in the cabinet. Not yet.