Cheika was a No. 8 who played for Australia at under 21 level. He played more than 300 games for Randwick, winning the Shute Shield seven times during a period when the Galloping Greens dominated Sydney rugby.
As a player, Cheika made a mid-career move to Europe in 1989 where he had two seasons in the South of France with Castres Olympique in Division 1, and a season for Paris team Club Athlétique des Sports Généraux (later merged with Stade Français) in Division 2. He then joined Italian side Rugby Livorno alongside Randwick teammate David Knox from 1992 to 1994. He represented an Italian Selection XV against the All Blacks in 1993.
Returning to Australia, he captained Randwick from 1997 and 1999, and represented New South Wales on their spring tour of the UK in 1997.
Cheika had never coached before but in 1999 David Campese brought his attention to a coaching job in Italy. He applied for it and was successful. Cheika and Knox coached Petrarca Padova through a Heineken Cup campaign which did not yield any wins.
Cheika returned to Sydney in 2001 when his father fell ill. With European coaching experience under his belt he secured the Randwick coaching ticket and guided his old club to a Shute Shield victory in 2004.
In 2005, Cheika replaced Declan Kidney as head coach at Leinster. Mick Dawson, Leinster's chief executive, described it as a calculated punt. Kidney had left in contentious circumstances having agreed to a move to rivals Munster before the season's end and Leinster were said to be in disarray. Cheika brought assistant David Knox, his former teammate, with him to Ireland.
Cheika's first season culminated in a Heineken Cup semi–final against Munster, which Munster won 30–6, on their way to lifting the trophy.
Cheika's second season in charge was a difficult one, as Leinster were knocked out of the Heineken Cup at the quarterfinal stage by London Wasps. In 07/08 Leinster won the Celtic League trophy with a bonus point 41–8 victory against the Newport Gwent Dragons. It was Cheika's first trophy as Leinster coach and Leinster's first since the 2001 Celtic League.
Leinster recruited Alan Gaffney to the management team as backs coach in the 2009 season, to join Kurt McQuilkin as defence coach and forwards coach Jono Gibbes. Leinster were unable to retain their Celtic League title, and finished third behind Munster and Edinburgh. However, Cheika led Leinster to European success, guiding the team to the 2009 Heineken Cup Final. They became champions after topping their pool by beating London Wasps, Edinburgh and Castres Olympique. Leinster was seeded sixth and faced Harlequins in the quarterfinal, winning 6–5. In an all Irish derby at Croke Park against defending champions Munster, Cheika guided the team to a historic 25–6 victory to set up a final against Leicester Tigers. At Murrayfield Stadium the team secured a 19–16 victory over the Tigers, to clinch Leinster's first ever European title.
In his final season in charge, Cheika led Leinster to top of the table in the revamped 2009–10 Celtic League, with 13 victories from 18 starts. In the semifinal, Leinster beat Munster 16–6, before losing to the Ospreys 17–12 at home at the RDS. The team was also unable to retain their European title. Leinster beat Clermont Auvergne 29–28, however lost to eventual champions Toulouse 26–16.
Cheika left his post with Leinster Rugby at the end of that season to become head coach for French Top 14 side Stade Français.
Cheika was Director of Rugby of the Paris-based club between 2010 and 2012. It was reported that his time at Stade Français was less successful than at previous clubs. Off-field conflict and mediocre on-field results made his life difficult, culminating in him being sacked.
During the 2010–11 Top 14 season, Stade Français finished 11th in the standings with only 10 wins from 26. However, in the 2010–11 European Challenge Cup, Stade Français clinched top seed after the Pool stage, winning all 6 of their matches. Their pool, however, did include Leeds Carnegie, Bucureşti Oaks and Crociati Parma, with the latter two being semi-professional sides. Stade won the quarterfinal beating Montpellier 32–28. Cheika's team beat Clermont, who had dropped down from the Heineken Cup, by 29–25 in the semifinal, but narrowly lost to Harlequins 19–18 in the final at Cardiff.
In the 2011–12 Top 14 season, Stade Français improved on their previous standing, finishing seventh with 11 wins. The team again clinched the top seeding in the European Challenge Cup and beat Exeter Chiefs 22–17 in the quarterfinal. However, they lost in the semifinal by 32–29 to Toulon.
Cheika was appointed as head coach of the New South Wales Waratahs in 2012 for the 2013 Super Rugby season. In his first season, he guided the team to mid-table of 9th, with an even split of 8 wins and 8 losses. Some of their victories were notable, including the 25–20 win over the eventual (and defending) champions, the Chiefs, in round 10. The Waratahs turned over the Brumbies 28–22, before narrowly losing to the Crusaders 23–22 in Christchurch. Cheika also led the team against the British and Irish Lions, losing the match 47–17. He was responsible for signing Israel Folau from AFL side Greater Western Sydney Giants, who made a massive impact to the Wallabies in his debut season.
Cheika secured further key signings for the 2014 season including Kurtley Beale, Nick Phipps, Jacques Potgieter and another Rugby League convert Taqele Naiyaravoro. He created attacking backline combinations with Phipps and Bernard Foley as the halves, Beale and Adam Ashley-Cooper in midfield and with Folau at fullback. The Waratahs dominant forward pack, led by Dave Dennis, created a platform for the skillful backs.
In just his second season in charge, Cheika coached the Waratahs to their first ever Super Rugby title, with the team finishing seven points ahead of their nearest rivals, the Crusaders. The Waratahs defeated the Brumbies 26–8 in the semifinal which earned them a first home final against their Christchurch-based rivals, the Crusaders, whom the Waratahs had not defeated in over a decade. In the 2014 Super Rugby final the Waratahs beat the Crusaders by a single point, 33-32, in a nail-biter witnessed by a record Super Rugby crowd of over 61,007 people at ANZ Stadium in Sydney.
During the 2015 Super Rugby season, the Waratahs campaign to retain their title started with a 25–13 loss to the Western Force in Sydney, which was later followed by a second loss to the Force in Round 13, losing 18–11 in Perth. Cheika led the Waratahs to a 29–24 win over the eventual New Zealand conference winners the Hurricanes in Wellington, and a 32–22 win over the Crusaders in Sydney. Across the 16 matches of the 2015 regular season the Waratahs conceded 11 yellow cards. Two players, Will Skelton and Tolu Latu, were suspended from playing during the latter stages of the tournament leading to Cheika's tactics being questioned. The Waratahs had lost to the Highlanders 26–19 in Dunedin in Round 5 and were defeated by them again in the semifinal in Sydney by 35–17. It was a surprise for some how well the Waratahs did, considering the team had to play for 10 consecutive weeks between their second bye and the knock out stage, which included their two away matches against South Africa opposition.
Cheika was appointed as the head coach of the Australia national team on 22 October 2014, with a three-year contract that would see him take the Wallabies through the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
He took over after Ewen McKenzie's shock resignation the previous week and had very little time with the team before Australia started their 2014 end of year tour. His first match as coach was a non-capped game against the Barbarians, with the Wallabies winning 40–36. Cheika's first test match as coach was a 33–28 victory for Australia over Wales which was a record 10th consecutive win against them.
However, Cheika lost his first match against France a week later, with Australia being defeated 29–26. This for France was seen as revenge following Australia's dominant 3–0 series win over Les Bleus in June 2014 under former coach Ewen McKenzie. Cheika's team lost their next match against Ireland 26–23. Ireland had led 17–0 after just fifteen but three quick tries in the next fifteen minutes put Australia back in the game.
Australia then faced Rugby World Cup rivals England who had only win from their last six starts. England's forwards overpowered Australia in the match, however, to win 26–17. The result meant that Australia had lost three out of four test matches on their tour, their worst record since 2005. Cheika made it clear that the scrum needed to be fixed before the World Cup, and later sacked the forwards coach Andrew Blades.
Scrum coach Mario Ledesma was recruited to the Waratahs and began working on scrummaging with the Wallabies players that were in New South Wales. Brumbies head coach Stephen Larkham was brought in as backline and attack coach for the World Cup. Nathan Grey was appointed as defence coach.
In the lead up to the 2015 World Cup, Cheika is credited for inventing Giteau's law which enabled overseas based players to play for Australia.
During the 2015 Rugby Championship, Cheika made multiple changes to his side for each match despite the Wallabies' winning form. They opened their campaign with a 24–20 win over South Africa, winning in overtime with a late try from Tevita Kuridrani. They beat Argentina 34–9 a week later to set-up a decider with New Zealand in the final round. It was during that All Blacks match that Cheika started two specialized opensides for the first time since 2010, and they were both influential in the Wallabies 27–19 win. The win sealed the Rugby Championship for the Wallabies, their first ever Rugby Championship title, although including the former Trinations format it was the Wallabies fourth title since the competition began 1996. The Wallabies also achieved a 100% win rate for the first ever time in either format. However, the Wallabies failed to win the Bledisloe cup, losing to New Zealand 41–13 in Auckland a week later.
Despite having only been in charge of the Wallabies for a year, Cheika led Australia to the 2015 Rugby World Cup Final. They topped Pool A with victories over Fiji 28–13, Uruguay 65–3, England 33–13 and Wales 15–6. They narrowly beat Scotland in the quarter-final winning 35–34 after a controversial last minute penalty. They beat Argentina 29–15 in the semi-final to reach the final against the All Blacks. The Wallabies went down 16–3 at half time, but fought back in the second half to trail by only 21-17 with 10 minutes remaining. However a drop goal, penalty and a last minute try saw New Zealand claim an historic 34–17 victory. On 1 November, Cheika was named 2015 World Rugby Coach of the Year, becoming the first Australian coach to claim the title since Rod Macqueen in 2001, and the first non-New Zealander coach to win it since Ireland's Declan Kidney in 2009.
In 2016, England toured Australia for a three-test series, the first of its kind. The series saw Australia lose all three tests to be "whitewashed" for the first time in a home series since South Africa won 3–0 in 1971. The first test, lost 39–28, saw England win back-to-back tests on Australian soil for the first time since 2003, while winning at Brisbane for the first ever time. The 39 points scored against Australia were the most points Australia had ever conceded by an English team. The second test saw England win 23–7, a record winning margin on Australian soil and a record third consecutive away win, to see England claim their first ever series win over Australia. The final test saw an accumulative score of 84 points, with England the victors 44–40.
He led Australia to second in the 2016 Rugby Championship despite losing the first two matches on an aggregate score of 71–17 against New Zealand. Cheika lead the Wallabies to their first win of the season against South Africa in round 3, winning 23–17, before defeating Argentina the following week 36–20. Australia narrowly missed out on their first ever victory at Loftus Versfeld Stadium, losing to South Africa in Pretoria 18–10. In the final week of the Championship, Argentina hosted Australia in London, where the teams became the first to play a Rugby Championship or Tri-Nations match outside any of the SANZAAR nations. Australia were the victors, 33–21. In the final Bledisloe Cup on 22 October, Australia were defeated 37–10, conceding 18 points in the closing 20 minutes. Australia's 2016 Spring tour saw mixed results, convincingly defeating Wales 32–8 in the opening week, before narrowly defeating Scotland with a 74th minute try by Tevita Kuridrani to win 23–22. Their third game saw Cheika completely change the team for the French clash, but still managed to claim the victory 25–23. The fourth and fifths matches on the tour saw the Wallabies lose their eight and ninth tests of the year, losing to Ireland 27–24 and England 37–21, with Ireland loss killing the Australian's chances of claiming a successful Grand Slam tour.
Australia's 2017 season started with a 37–14 victory over Fiji where Cheika gave four players their international debut. The following week, Australia lost to Scotland for the first ever time in Sydney, losing 24–19. It was the first time ever Australia had lost to Scotland twice in row at home, with the last loss, 9–6 in 2012, the last time Scotland had beaten Australia. Australia's final June test was a 40–27 victory over Italy, though for most of the game the teams weren't separated by many points with the score being 28–27 until the 75th minute.
Note: World Rankings Column shows the World Ranking Australia was placed at on the following Monday after each of their matches
Cheika is the son of Lebanese migrants. He is the youngest of three children and grew up in a working-class home in Coogee, New South Wales. He previously worked for dress designer Collette Dinnigan, before starting a multimillion-dollar fashion business of his own called Live Fashion. Cheika speaks fluent Arabic, French and Italian. He was known among the Leinster rugby fraternity as Mic Check 1–2, a humorous allusion to his name, Craig McLachlan's band and his eagerness that all facets of preparation were scrutinised and reviewed prior to matchday.
Cheika married in June 2008. He and his wife Stephanie have four children.