Michael Cheika adds spice to meaty England vs Argentina showdown with forward battle key

Master motivator: Argentina coach Michael Cheika  (Getty Images)
Master motivator: Argentina coach Michael Cheika (Getty Images)

Pairing Michael Cheika with the Pumas might just be as Argentinian as quaffing Malbec and devouring steak.

Cheika, the tub-thumping Australian of Lebanese descent, boasts the mix of passion, aggression and intensity that embodies Argentina’s rugby.

As taskmaster, astute tactician and master man-manager, Cheika knew exactly how to hone Argentina’s ball of anger from the moment he seized the helm in March.

Argentinians do things differently, from slicing their beef short rib in the opposite angle from the rest of the world — to their unique Bajada scrum-binding technique designed to heap pressure on the rival hooker.

Cheika has filleted his fair share of opponents in a club and Test coaching career of the highest calibre, from excelling with Leinster and Stade Francais, to skewering more than a few juicy foes with his native Wallabies.

These two may just prove a match made on a Buenos Aires tasting menu — except Test match rugby is not played on paper.

England will step out at Twickenham determined to pummel that mouth-watering Cheika-Pumas combination into rugby’s equivalent of shoe-sole steak and cheap plonk.

The Argentina squad enjoyed some rather finer fare at the Lensbury on Thursday afternoon, grilling up a traditional “asado” feast on a makeshift “parilla” barbecue at their leafy Teddington base.

As the Latin-tinged smoke hit the west London air, 30-odd slabs of Argentinian beef watched the clock tick down ahead of Sunday’s big England showdown.

Newcastle centre Matias Orlando, for one, loves Cheika’s tough-love coaching, insisting the Pumas have not missed their spiritual leader in his odd absences this week.

Cheika has been coaching Lebanon in the Rugby League World Cup, splitting his week between the North West and London. There will be no loss of focus at Twickenham, however.

“Michael will challenge you sometimes in training,” said Orlando. “But he knows which players can support that, and which can’t. He’s hard sometimes, but he makes jokes too.

“I like it when he’s tough on me, I enjoy that and I prefer it. He’s given us more confidence and trust in ourselves, that’s the big change. He knows how to manage every player.”

Eddie Jones’s men will have to work out how to tenderise their visitors, starting with an old-fashioned hammering up front.

England’s back-five pack combination will prove pivotal then, especially in the absence of captain Courtney Lawes, who continues to struggle with concussion symptoms. Lawes’s brutal power-hitting strikes put genuine doubt into opponents, and England will need to offset his loss.

England’s back-five pack combination will prove pivotal, especially in the absence of captain Courtney Lawes

Pumas stars Pablo Matera and Tomas Lavanini will be among the men licking their lips at the tight exchanges, whatever big units come around the corner on uncompromising lines. Maro Itoje and Jonny Hill know exactly how to punch holes around the fringes, but the two physical locks must shoulder an extra burden in Lawes’s absence.

Billy Vunipola is back to his thundering best, with the Saracens No8 primed for his first England appearance at a full Twickenham since 2019. The back-row forward has battled injuries and form issues, but has fought right back into his natural berth as a starting fulcrum.

Vunipola has revealed he stayed away from Twickenham entirely while he was out of favour with boss Jones, turning down lucrative corporate opportunities on Test match days.

Newcastle centre Matias Orlando insists he enjoys Cheika’s touch approach to coaching (Getty Images)
Newcastle centre Matias Orlando insists he enjoys Cheika’s touch approach to coaching (Getty Images)

England will be delighted to play host to his bulldozing ball-carrying rather than the odd question-and-answer session, and his freshness raises hopes of an extended run in the side. The 2023 World Cup would be Vunipola’s third global tournament, but the candid loose-forward this week hinted it would not necessarily be his last.

England may just have the tantalising midfield trio of Marcus Smith, Owen Farrell and Manu Tuilagi for a full Test window. Jones and his coaches want to expand England’s attack this autumn, doubtless with next year’s World Cup in France in mind.

Harlequins tyro Smith will have the keys to the backline by the end of the month should England emerge in credit from these four Tests against Argentina, Japan, New Zealand and South Africa. Bolster the tight game, blend the attack and England will be cooking on gas.