The Waratahs host the Canterbury Crusaders in the Super Rugby title-decider on Saturday, bidding for a maiden trophy in their first final on home soil.
The most consistent and entertaining team in the southern hemisphere competition, the Waratahs have come a long way since their ‘annus horribilis’ in 2012, when they managed just four wins and were jeered off the ground by their own supporters.
Cheika, who took over in the wake of that dismal season, doubled the Waratahs’ wins in his first year in charge and has been credited for turning a once-demoralised roster into an industrious and joy-filled team that prides itself on hard work.
The 47-year-old, who guided Irish team Leinster to their first Heineken Cup trophy in 2008-09, is reluctant to take credit for the team’s transformation but said his players had absorbed one lesson from his staff – the need to take responsibility for the club’s fortunes and failures.
“I don’t know if I turned the morale around,” Cheika said in a phone interview. “I think what we just did, we got in there and said ‘let’s take a bit of ownership as to what’s happening’.
“Everything goes a bit better if someone owns it. We’ve got some skin in it. Let’s take some sacrifices and take ownership.
“Because it’s not like a privately-owned team. There’s no owner standing there saying ‘come on, you’ve got to do this and that or whatever’.
“We as players and coaches have got to take ownership and take it personally and live it. I think that’s what we’ve tried to do.
“If you do that, you get more involved and it becomes more a part of you so you feel everything a little bit more and you get more attached and therefore you give more effort and it’s a bit of a circle in that way.”
Though having reached the 2005 and 2008 finals, both times beaten away by the Crusaders, the Waratahs did appear to suffer a ‘tragedy of the commons’ in the final years of coach Michael Foley, with a talent-laden playing roster seemingly unable to translate abundant resources into on-field success.
Slammed by local media for playing an unappetising brand of rugby, Sydney fans stopped turning up for games amid reports of dire financial troubles at the club.
Saturday’s clash may surpass an Australian record for a Super Rugby match and the fans have returned in droves this year as the Waratahs, powered by a sometimes breathtaking running game, stormed to the top of the standings at the end of the regular season.
Like fullback Israel Folau and his Wallabies team mate Kurtley Beale, hot properties in world rugby and wooed by Australia’s National Rugby League competition, Cheika’s future at the Waratahs is also a matter of speculation.
Reports have linked the former Randwick number eight with a role at French giants Toulon, though he has laughed them off.
Winning the title for long-suffering New South Wales fans might be the perfect send-off, but Cheika said his vision for the Waratahs extended far beyond Saturday’s final siren.
“I’m very circumspect about the word ‘dynasty’. There’s a bit of thinking about ruling over an empire with that type of thing,” he said.
“What’s important is that we’re leaving something for the next season’s team, something around our behaviour, our culture if you like. About our play, our identity, all those things.
“Last year’s team worked hard on leaving something good for this year’s team to build on.
“And (it’s the same) for next year’s team to build on. It’s about not just working for the short-term. A lot of guys come into the game wanting a professional contact (anywhere) but we want guys coming through wanting to play for the Waratahs.
“We can do that by keep pushing our identity and making it very clear for anyone that if you want to play here, this is what you’re going to get.”
(Editing by John O’Brien)