They were the cappuccino-sipping glamour boys harnessed by a history of under-performance and hometown indifference.
They boasted all the big names but hadn’t achieved anything of note on the field. Jaded and fed up, their fans had deserted them.
Sound familiar? No, this isn’t the Waratahs.
It’s Irish province Leinster, the year their chief executive took a “calculated punt” on a virtually unknown Australian coach called Michael Cheika.
It was 2005. Declan Kidney had lasted one season in the job before leaving as quickly as he had arrived.
Leinster boasted Test luminaries Brian O’Driscoll, Shane Horgan, Felipe Contepomi and Leo Cullen but had just lost a European Cup quarter-final to English province Leicester.
In contrast to the brand of honest, tough rugby played down south by their arch rivals Munster, Leinster were known as the “ladyboys” of Irish rugby.
“It was due to poor performances in the past and not just on the field,” Cheika recalls. “We had the wrong stereotype. In Leinster we were the cappuccino-sipping ‘Dublin 4’ types.”
Cheika set about changing that, although he freely admits he was a little short on detail and experience.
“I didn’t really know what I was doing in year one at Leinster, to be honest,” he says. “I was just seeing what happened. Now I have more experience.”
Leinster made the European Cup semi-finals in his first season in charge, struggled through the next two seasons but broke through for their first European Cup title in 2009.
Five years later, Cheika is one season into an ambitious attempt to similarly transform Australian rugby’s under-achievers, armed with the lessons he learnt in those successful five years in Dublin, and a less successful subsequent season in Paris with Stade Francais.
“It’s going in the right direction,” he says. “The biggest thing for me is the attitude of the players and that we’re really starting to show our values on a day-to-day basis. Off the field, on the field, and building a really nice football club atmosphere. The peripheral stuff is out of our mind – all the excuses – we’re just concentrating on the job that they need to do.”
Welcome to stage two of the Cheika Project in NSW.
Stage one was full of ups and downs. A ninth place finish in Super Rugby was only two better than the previous season but change was taking place behind the scenes.
By the end of his first year, Cheika had turned his squad inside out. Big names exited stage left – Berrick Barnes, Drew Mitchell, Lachie Turner, Tom Carter, Tom Kingston, Sitaleki Timani, Lopeti Timani – while a new breed were ushered in.
Kurtley Beale was brought back to his old stomping ground, and one of the sport’s biggest names, Israel Folau, was retained for two more seasons.
Along with the high-profile stars, Cheika also brought home some forgotten faces. Cheika lured back former Waratah Matt Carraro from France, recruited talented young Australian back rower Tala Gray from France and offered popular former Brumbies captain Stephen Hoiles a shot at a second chance.
It was a similar recruitment tactic he used in Dublin.
At Leinster, he signed England-based Irish players Cullen, Shane Jennings, Mike Ross and Eoin Reddan, who all went on to play key roles in the province’s resurgence.
At the Waratahs, Carraro and Hoiles might not be instant starters but that’s not the point.
Cullen never achieved standout success at Test level but was a touchstone for Leinster. Cheika made him captain after Brian O’Driscoll relinquished the role in 2008. The tough second-rower led the side to a 25-6 win over Munster in front of 82,500 people at Croke Park in the European Cup semi-final and a 19-16 win against Leicester to take the title two weeks later. Cheika loves a homegrown toiler. He rewards loyalty and passion, and seeks its influence for his teams.
So far this season, things appear to be moving along nicely.
A six-try romp against the Blues and a 27-point annihilation of the Reds were impressive if not perfect insights into what the Waratahs threaten – hard, fast rugby with maximum ball movement and echoes of Randwick-era joyousness.
The better indicator, though, might be who did not start in those performances.
Rob Horne, Cam Crawford, Jono Lance, Ben Volavola, Brendan McKibbin, Pat McCutcheon and Jeremy Tilse all started in the squad’s second team that played the Argentine Pampas in the Pacific Rugby Cup on Friday.
For a squad that once would fold like deckchairs if three of their first XV fell over, that new-found depth sends an ominous signal to the Waratahs’ Australian conference rivals.
Gone too is the mental frailty that blighted the team last season, an insidious lack of confidence in the team’s capacity to deliver.
“The biggest thing we’ve been working on is not being worried about losing,” Cheika says. “NSW teams in the past have been too worried about the possibility of losing and what everyone is going to say.
“I would rather think about how we can win and do everything we can to do that. If that’s not good enough then so be it, but don’t have any regrets, just make sure you give everything to the game.”
One group still requires convincing. They’re called Waratahs fans, the toughest crowd around.
Fewer than 18,000 people went to ANZ Stadium to watch NSW wreak historic havoc on Queensland last weekend, but Cheika refuses to buy into the hand-wringing.
“I’m old school, if there’s five people there supporting us, we’ll play for five,” he says. “If there’s 18,000 we’re happy that those 18,000 are there because they’re loyal supporters, and we want to play for them.
“It’s such a complicated issue, it’s about getting everything right in the whole organisation. We have to keep showing our supporters – not necessarily the ones who aren’t coming, but the ones who are coming – that we’re giving our all every week.
“I am more interested in making happy the people who are coming proud of us, and then if the others come and join on, that’s great. I’m not dirty on them, but that’s got to be our concentration, and the rest will take care of itself.”
The football, the crowds, the ghosts of seasons past. Oh and don’t forget the Waratahs are supposed to be saving Australian rugby.
“We’ve been constantly disappointed with the Waratahs,” Australian Rugby Union boss Bill Pulver declared last month.
NSW is the ARU’s biggest market. After months of endless openness on the financial ills of the sport in Australia, Pulver put the heat on Waratahs Rugby.
“This should be their year,” he said. “Michael Cheika has been there long enough to put his imprimatur on the game. They’ve got an extraordinary playing group. We are expecting big things.”
None of this is news to Cheika, a businessman who understands commercial imperatives, but there is a hint of defiance in his response.
“I want to do well anyway so that’s a common goal,” he says. “I don’t carry anyone’s expectations except my own and of course my team’s to be able to deliver them the best possible preparation. That’s all we can do.”