Michael Cheika's Wallabies legacy reaches moment of truth

Almost four years to the day, a relaxed Michael Cheika sat in the MacDonald Bath Spa Hotel.

There were maybe 10 or so journalists who'd made the trip to the west country, half of whom had travelled north from Australia to cover what many believed could be the Wallabies' shortest World Cup stay yet.

With Wales and tournament hosts England in their pool, Australia faced the very real prospect of exiting before the quarterfinal stage at the Rugby World Cup.

Yet there was a quiet confidence about Cheika and his squad as they prepared for their tournament opener against Fiji - the same opposition they will face on Saturday - an hour's drive further west under the roof of Cardiff's Millennium Stadium.

On that Wednesday evening the Wallabies set in motion a six-week run to the final that would ultimately end in defeat, but also herald the beginning of one of the most tumultuous coaching reigns in Wallabies history. A 28-13 victory over the Flying Fijians was not without its nervy moments, nor were the Wallabies' crunch pool matches against Wales and England, so too their quarter and semifinal triumphs over Scotland and Argentina.

The Scotland game, in particular, is recalled with infamy after referee Craig Joubert awarded the Wallabies a controversial penalty which Bernard Foley calmly slotted to win the game, prompting furious kilted Scotsman to thunder toward the exits with shouts of: "We wus robbed, you tell 'em that we wus' robbed."

A bottle was even thrown towards Joubert as the referee ran up the tunnel. It was as ugly as professional rugby gets.

While the Wallabies received another game-turning call when Ben Smith was sin-binned for a lifting tackle two weeks later in the final, their hopes of an unlikely comeback victory were quickly extinguished first by Dan Carter's left boot and then Beauden Barrett's turf-churning speed.

A disconsolate Cheika strode across the presentation dais and offered only a raised hand to those who applauded his efforts, before he trudged down the steps to the other side. The World Rugby award for Coach of the Year wasn't much of a consolation prize, despite the furore it created on the other side of the Tasman.

Even though he had missed out on the ultimate goal, few could deny Cheika's work was worthy of an improved Wallabies deal.

He was to get it too, as then Australian Rugby Union chief Bill Pulver and the ARU board signed off on a two-year extension to an existing deal that would take him through to 2019.

Cheika's timing was impeccable. A month out from the Wallabies' June series with England, his future was secure. Australia were promptly beaten by Eddie Jones' England 3-0, and the first real signs of chinks in the Cheika coaching armour had been laid bare.

To make matters worse, the Wallabies were smashed 42-8 in the opening Bledisloe Cup clash and would eventually succumb to a 3-0 whitewash, while England brought the broom out from the cupboard once more to round out the sweep when they defeated the Wallabies at Twickenham.

After beginning his national tenure with a 10-2 season, Cheika's coaching record was 16-11 by the end of 2016. While he managed a 7-5-2 season a year later, and even earned a second victory over the All Blacks in Brisbane - a match with nothing riding on it - good Wallabies performances were outliers and Cheika's 83.3 winning percentage of 2015 had shrunk to 58.5 by the end of 2017.

But worse was to come as 2018 proved to be a disastrous year for the Wallabies.

After starting the season with a dogged victory over Ireland in Brisbane, Australia would lose nine of their next 12 Tests. Another hiding from the All Blacks in Sydney prompted a swathe of media criticsm that was scathing of Cheika's coaching ability and would ultimately end in the coach being called before chief executive Raelene Castle and the board to explain his plan moving forward.

Cheika survived, assistant coach Stephen Larkham did not.

The former Randwick, Leinster and Waratahs boss had, along the way, engaged in back-and-forth with All Blacks rival Steve Hansen, the Kiwi's Mickey Mouse comment a real low point; there were also several terse exchanges with journalists when he was really in the firing line, and broadcast images of a frustrated Cheika bemoaning refereeing decisions repeatedly brought a Bronx cheer from of the crowd such were their regularity on stadium big screens.

His third win over the All Blacks, in Bledisloe I in Sydney just a month ago, sparked talk of a potential revival only for it disappear with a 36-0 flogging in the return match seven days later.

But after the Wallabies' victory over Samoa in Sydney earlier this month - a result which coincidentally improved Cheika's winning percentage to 52.44 - the Australian cut a similar figure to the same man four years ago in Bath who was then just five games into his Test career.

The 34-15 victory was hardly a performance to be thrilled with, yet Cheika seemed at peace with his side's preparations just 24 hours before they were due to fly out to Japan. Perhaps it was the progress after last year's turgid return, the last flickers of a glow that comes with a win over the All Blacks or the knowledge that his squad is actually closer than ever when for a few weeks earlier this year it looked like the Israel Folau saga could rip them apart completely.

Or maybe it's that Cheika feels tournament-style knockout rugby is where he does his best work; that his high-octane, motivation-heavy, inner-circle approach is best suited to the ecosystem in which the World Cup exists. The knowledge that he fell just one match short of the game's ultimate prize surely also inspires confidence.

But it is that one further win - seven in total - that Cheika needs in Japan if his international coaching legacy is to be considered with the same esteem as his provincial record - including both a Heineken Cup and Super Rugby championship -- and is also remembered for being little more than one of the most eventful on record.

A coaching tenure that will come to a sudden halt with anything other than the Webb Ellis Cup held above his head on a Yokohama evening on Nov. 2.