OITA, 18 Oct - Australia coach Michael Cheika is modern rugby's ultimate paradox. Should his team upset the odds and beat England in their quarter-final on Saturday, he will surely be hailed as a well-disguised magician, a coach who can prime a team to produce when it really matters. Lose and he will just as surely be looking for a new job.
Such extremes seem to be perfectly suited to a man who thrives on defying convention.
On the one hand he is a direct throwback to the sport's amateur age: a straight-talking, former number eight who spent the first part of Rugby World Cup quarter-final week insisting that coaching is a "passion not a career" and he wants his team to play in exactly the same manner as that espoused by his famous old Sydney club, Randwick.
On the other, he is a highly successful businessman who speaks four languages and has built an enviable reputation for steering perennially under-achieving sides to silverware through a combination of spotless man-management and restless innovation.
"I believe that when you do believe in yourself, you're much closer to being able to make history"@wallabies head coach Michael Cheika backs his players to rise to the challenge on Saturday when they face England in the quarter-finals.#RWC2019 pic.twitter.com/arhhei2Ic3— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) October 15, 2019
It is a recipe many of those who know him best have come to love.
"He's very clever, he knows exactly what he's doing," said Rugby World Cup 1999 winner Owen Finegan, who played with Cheika at Randwick and under him at Irish club Leinster.
"The two best coaches I had would be Michael Cheika and Rod Macqueen (Australia head coach, 1997-2001), and they both had extensive business backgrounds, they knew how to manage people, how important relationships are."
Finegan, who at 47 is five years younger than Cheika, first met the son of Lebanese immigrants on the training field at Randwick. The young back-row forward, who would go on to play 56 times for his country, was impressed by Cheika's "aggression and physicality" on the pitch, but it was his life off the pitch that really struck Finegan.
🚨Team announcement🚨@wallabies have announced their team to play @EnglandRugby in the quarter-finals at #RWC2019#ENGvAUS #WebbEllisCup— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) October 17, 2019
Find out where you can watch at https://t.co/z0BgdPYBjN pic.twitter.com/iLuuWfaa2V
"He was successfully running his own business, employing a few of his team-mates, a few of the Randwick boys who were looking for work. He was almost a father figure," Finegan recalled. "A really generous bloke who would have all the boys round to his house for BBQs and beers. He just loved the ethos of rugby and everything that goes with it."
Fashion might be an unlikely outlet for a man with matching cauliflower ears and a vivid scar running across his hairline - a permanent "gift" left by the boot of a disgruntled opponent - but it was here that Cheika carved a niche.
First he worked as a business manager for renowned Australian designer Collette Dinnigan and then he really cashed in, securing the distribution rights to a jeans brand made famous by Victoria Beckham.
Juggling such contrasting worlds has never been an issue for a man who can slip from Arabic to French to Spanish in the space of a single media conference and watched his parents build up their lives from nothing.
Finegan, seen below scoring his try in the RWC 1999 final, could not wait to work under his old friend when both found themselves at Leinster in 2006.
"I remember sitting in the changing room and Cheika asking who'd ever won anything and some people had to go back to under-16s to talk about the time they had won a tournament. And now they have turned into a powerhouse because he changed the way they did things, moved location, changed gyms, changed facilities. Then he went and did the same at the (NSW) Waratahs."
Cheika became the first coach to win the premier club competitions in both hemispheres after guiding Leinster to the Heineken Cup in 2009 and the Waratahs to the Super Rugby title in 2014. While the Wallabies have had a tough time in the past three years, it is easy to forget that it was Cheika who steered the then world No.6-ranked side to the World Cup final in 2015.
This wild, complex coach certainly seems to have full buy-in from his players this time round. First-choice hooker Tolu Latu enthused about the "caring side" of his boss this week, while flanker Lukhan Salakaia-Loto raved about the way Cheika always has the players' backs, no matter what.
Should it all go wrong on Saturday, Cheika has said he will simply shrug his shoulders and "get a real job". It is hard not to believe him.