MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Australia coach Michael Cheika laid a foundation of success for Irish rugby during his stint at Leinster, and eight years on, he faces the juggernaut he helped create at Lang Park on Saturday.
Joe Schmidt holds the reins of the visiting Six Nations champions, but Cheika’s influence runs deep through a squad looking to extend its 12-match winning streak in the southern hemisphere.
Cheika transformed an underachieving Leinster into European Cup champions in 2009, nurturing the likes of Johnny Sexton, Rob Kearney and Cian Healy before handing over to New Zealand-born Schmidt who carried on the Australian’s success.
Cheika has since worked his magic on home shores, guiding the Sydney-based New South Wales Waratahs to their maiden Super Rugby title in 2014 before lifting an unfancied Wallabies side to the World Cup final in England the following year.
Virtually all major rugby nations have suffered a loss to Cheika’s Wallabies, including the world champion All Blacks last year.
Schmidt’s Ireland, however, have proved the stubborn exception, claiming two tight home wins in 2014 and 2016.
“They’re the best team Ireland’s had since the start of their rugby history,” Cheika told reporters in Brisbane on Thursday.
“They’re coming down here as number two in the world. They can claim they’re underdogs as much as they like but they’re certainly going to be the favourites when they go off the back of the season they’ve had.”
June has been a forgettable month for Australian rugby in recent times, with a shock home loss to Scotland last year and a 3-0 whitewash by Eddie Jones’s England in 2016.
The leadup to the Ireland series has been typically chaotic.
Cheika’s preparations were distracted by a tug-of-war with New Zealand over uncapped loose forward Pete Samu, who was only belatedly released by the rival nation over the weekend.
Local provincial side ACT Brumbies also refused to rest flanker David Pocock and two other Wallabies from Super Rugby duties on Sunday, giving them little time to recover ahead of the Ireland series-opener.
Hooker Jordan Uelese was then a late scratching after sustaining a season-ending knee injury, forcing a late call-up for Tolu Latu.
Uncapped rake Brandon Paenga-Amosa will be thrust into a starting role along with loose forward Caleb Timu, while reserve Samu could be a third debutant.
The Wallabies look vulnerable, even facing an Ireland team shorn of injured captain and hooker Rory Best, and with Sexton a surprise name on the bench.
Flanker Peter O’Mahony and Sexton will co-captain the world’s second-ranked side, who are looking for both a first test and series win in Australia since 1979, and a southern hemisphere scalp to burnish their credentials as genuine World Cup contenders a year out from Japan.
Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Sudipto Ganguly