Australia head coach Michael Cheika. Picture: REUTERS/ HANNAH MCKAY
Australia head coach Michael Cheika. Picture: REUTERS/ HANNAH MCKAY

Melbourne — 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.

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 Schmidt who carried on the Australian’s success.

Cheika has since worked his magic on home shores, guiding the 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 champions All Blacks in 2017. 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 said in Brisbane on Thursday.

"They’re coming down here as No2 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 home loss to Scotland in 2017 and a 3-0 whitewash by Eddie Jones’s England in 2016. The lead-up 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 released by the rival nation at the weekend.

Local provincial side 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 hooker Brandon Paenga-Amosa will be thrust into a starting role with loose forward Caleb Timu, while Samu could be a third debutant.

The Wallabies look vulnerable, even facing an Ireland team short of injured captain and hooker Rory Best, and with Sexton a surprise on the bench.

Flanker Peter O’Mahony and Sexton will co-captain the side looking for both a first Test and series win in Australia since 1979.

Reuters

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