Michael Cheika may be on the nose with disillusioned Wallabies fans but he’s a hero to newly crowned John Eales medallist Marika Koroibete.
Koroibete paid a heartfelt tribute to Cheika after joining the modern-day greats of Australian rugby as the Wallabies’ 2019 player of the year.
In just his third season in the 15-man code after defecting from the NRL, the electric winger won the battle of the Fijian-born backs to see off Samu Kerevi and claim the Wallabies’ highest individual honour.
“It’s such an honour to be named with all the great players who’ve won this medal before. I still can’t believe it. I wasn’t expecting this,” Koroibete said on Australian rugby’s night of nights in Sydney.
The humble star said the gong meant everything to his family, but he singled out the outgoing Cheika for believing in him.
It was Cheika who lured Koroibete from the Melbourne Storm and blooded him on the Wallabies’ 2016 spring tour of Europe. But he made the rookie wait almost another year before handing him his test debut.
“Michael Cheika was the one who spoke to me. He’s the one who moulded me to be here wearing this medal,” Koroibete said.
“He didn’t force me to play early. He took his time and encouraged me, gave me things six months by six months, and this year I’ve been working very hard with the (Melbourne) Rebels coaching staff, they’ve supported me as well.
“(Cheika) is such a great man, he mingled well with the boys.
“I like him as a coach. He’s honest with you. If there’s something you need to work on, he tells you straight. He doesn’t beat around the bush.
“Unfortunately, he’s not here anymore.”
Koroibete’s stunning form at the Rugby World Cup was enough for the 27-year-old to become the first winger bestowed with the country’s premier player prize, awarded since 2002.
He polled 200 votes from his Wallabies teammates, 50 clear of second-placed Kerevi.
The soft-spoken speedster revealed his fierce will to win after joining the likes of multiple winners George Smith, Michael Hooper, David Pocock and fellow code-hopper Israel Folau on the honour roll, as well superstar playmakers Matt Giteau and Kurtley Beale.
“I hate losing,” Koroibete said.
“I just go on the field: ‘Where is the No.14?’ I’m No.11, who is the No.14? Me and you tonight. That’s my mentality. We’ll go out there and see who the best player on the field is tonight.
“It’s not about me versing the whole team. I set my goals tiny, me and my winger, compete with him.
“The game plan this year suited me very well, I liked it, and it was simple so I enjoyed it this year.”
Source: Rugby Pass