By Matthew Burke, The Sun-Herald
Given the task of building a championship team, there is one simple question: do you load up on good players or do you use some of the cash to fork out for a top coach?
Do good players make the coach or the coach make good players?
My opinion varied during my time as a player. Now that I am sitting in the grandstand, it has been questioned again.
I say this as the Waratahs sit on top of the Super Rugby table with a state embracing its team like it hasn’t for some time. If ever.
Much was made of Michael Cheika’s arrival at the Waratahs last season and the hard edge he would bring to the team.
We can all agree that this goal has been achieved. From an outsider’s point of view, he has also been open, which is so refreshing. He calls it how he sees it. For a player, this is unheard of (remembering back to some of the mind games that were played in my time).
But he does have his cruel side.
You never want to be criticised too heavily but, by the same token, identifying your weakness makes you a better player.
The real role of a coach is to get players to believe in who they are.
At the level we are talking about – Super Rugby – the players arrive with a high level of skill, but sometimes they need a push to break through that last barrier holding them back. That’s how they get to a higher level.
Apart from changing up the game plan, Cheika has given players the confidence to take their game to another level.
Israel Folau has thrived under the guidance of this coach.
Kurtley Beale has found stability off the field and is no doubt attributing that positive influence to the structure provided by Tahs rugby.
Wycliff Palu has reclaimed vintage form and the belief shown in Bernard Foley to lead the team from No.10 has perhaps been the master stroke of the year.
Cheika took hold of the Irish team Leinster, changed the roster and eventually took the team to the top of European rugby. The credentials are certainly there.
The change we see in the Waratahs is intrinsic. After all is said and done, you have to live it. Those who don’t, get moved on. But if you go all in, you will be rewarded.
I think back to last year around final time when there was a slight chance that the Tahs, in Cheika’s inaugural season, might make the top six.
People were dreaming, the media were dreaming, but the response from a very candid and forthright coach was for everyone to calm down.
We have not done anything yet for you to inflate the tyres, he said. And he also had no worries about telling the team not to get ahead of themselves.
So I go back to my initial question: do good players make the coach or does the coach make good players?
In this instance, I think the coach has been the catalyst for the turnaround in form, so perhaps the pat on the back has to go to the powers who sought to bring Cheika home from Europe.
He inherited a team, changed some of the personnel, introduced some new blood and placed an emphasis on individual ownership.
I was always of the belief that if you had a team of champions anyone could be at the helm and steer the ship.
I know coaches have influence, but how do you take a team and make them better than what they were, essentially with the same players?
That is the secret coaches like Cheika have to be able to unlock.
I played 13 seasons with the Waratahs and, for all that time, I cannot remember there ever being the level of camaraderie that there seems to be with this team.
I played alongside some wonderful players and some blokes who will be friends for life, but I saw an enjoyment in the faces of the players in that Highlanders game that made me feel there has indeed been a change.
That difference – the culture of the team – has been long awaited and no doubt it is for the betterment of rugby in NSW.
Matthew Burke is exclusively managed by The Fordham Company.