The big step back Cheika needs to take if he ever wants to snare an NRL coaching gig


If Michael Cheika is serious about becoming an NRL coach, he needs to pay his dues with a stint as an assistant or his unlikely ambition will never come to fruition. 

Cheika has expressed his interest in the vacancy at South Sydney and just like last year when the Wests Tigers and Dragons gigs came up, he is in the mix but unlikely to receive an offer. 

It’s not that he couldn’t do the job but NRL CEOs will be unwilling to take a punt on the former Wallabies mentor unless they see him do the hard yards in their environment. 

Cheika has demonstrated he possesses great knowledge about rugby league, he’s media savvy and has plenty of experience in all sorts of set-ups at the elite level. 

But his resume is lacking in one crucial area – experience in the NRL. 

It’s hard enough for any newbie to get a start as a head coach and it appears the best pathway nowadays is to attach yourself to an experienced operator who is eyeing off retirement and sign up for a succession plan. 

It worked, kind of, for Jason Demetriou at South Sydney and Kristian Woolf is now following in Wayne Bennett’s footsteps at the Dolphins.

Jason Ryles is hoping to do likewise when (or should that be if) Craig Bellamy finally fulfils his self-unfulfilling prophecy of retiring while Benji Marshall ended up in the main gig at Wests Tigers a year early after Tim Sheens’ shoddy second stint at the club didn’t even last a season. 

Cheika is a free agent at the moment after an impressive stint in charge of Argentina’s men’s team which included an historic win over the All Blacks in New Zealand and a World Cup semi-final appearance. 

He’s simply too good at what he does to stay on the market for too long. 

Michael Cheika. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Another rugby nation will offer up plenty to get him on board soon enough and with a World Cup three years away, he would have ample time to transform a team’s fortunes before the showpiece event. 

But if he wants to stay on home soil and try this rugby league caper, it is hard to see any club handing over the main coaching duties to someone whose league experience consists solely of guiding Lebanon into five Tests, including a credible quarter-final appearance at the 2022 World Cup. 

Whether it’s a player or a coach, switching codes is like learning a new langauge. You might become adept at your new language but rarely does anyone get more skilful than their mother tongue.

That doesn’t mean that cross-code converts can’t succeed. Some people pick up a new sport (or language) easier than others but the majority find it hard to become bilingual, particularly when you are trying to do so at an advanced age like 57-year-old Cheika. 

He has an affiliation with the Roosters but does anyone think Trent Robinson is going to leave them any time soon? He has been there for a decade-plus and he’s a decade younger than Cheika so it’s hardly the place for a succession plan.

If you scour the rest of the NRL coaching positions, there are a lot of experienced operators but nobody apart from Bellamy and Bennett who you could see giving the game away in the near future. Well, not voluntarily anyway.

Ricky Stuart wants to remain at the Raiders in perpetuity, Brad Arthur is clinging on at Parramatta as he heads into the final season of his deal next year while Ivan Cleary is very comfortable at Penrith, as you would be after three premierships in a row and your son starring at halfback. 

Des Hasler is not the succession planning type, Shane Flanagan has only just been given his second chance at NRL coaching life while the only other experienced mentor, Kevin Walters, fought for a long time to get his shot at the Broncos so he is not thinking about handing over the reins for the foreseeable future.

Cheika’s best bet appears to be getting a start at a club as an assistant, earning his spurs, building his reputation around the league to put himself at the front of the line as the next head coach in waiting.

Apart from Ryles who is tethered to the Storm, there does not appear to be a belle of the ball frontrunner at the moment for whichever NRL gig pops up next like Craig Fitzgibbon and Cameron Ciraldo were a few years ago.

Cronulla’s Josh Hannay, St George Illawarra’s Dean Young and now Ben Hornby at South Sydney have caretaker experience, Peter Wallace is fast earning a reputation at Penrith as Cleary’s second in command while John Morris is one of the few younger coaches who have been given a try at NRL level who have a strong chance of getting another one.

Wayne Bennett. (Photo by Mark Evans/Getty Images)

The inexperienced coach whose star is rising the fastest is Billy Slater after two straight State of Origin series wins from as many attempts although he appears in no rush to throw his hat into the NRL ring.

With Bennett all but certain to rejoin the Rabbitohs next season, two of his proteges in Hornby and Sam Burgess, if he can get out of his Warrington deal, are more likely than Cheika to be part of a second succession plan for the seven-time premiership winner at Souths. 

It would be a tough pill for someone of Cheika’s experience and credentials to take a major step backwards to be an assistant at an NRL club but it appears to be his optimal option if he wants to achieve the rare honour of coaching the Wallabies and also getting a start in rugby league. 

He couldn’t go worse than the most recent coach to do it with Balmain in the early 1990s but the less said about him the better.

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