Michael Cheika’s Australia may yet have last laugh at Rugby World Cup

This week the coach will announce his squad for the tournament on the back of a defeat by the All Blacks but with words of praise from counterpart Steve Hansen

Michael Cheika will announce Australia’s Rugby World Cup squad on Friday, having been given a banquet of food for thought by New Zealand – one week after the Wallabies defeated the All Blacks to win the Rugby Championship.

If Saturday’s 41-13 scoreline was harsh on Australia, with the All Blacks profiting from the yellow card shown to Quade Cooper early in the second half, they failed to cope with the pace and sustained intensity of the home side as their unsuccessful run at Eden Park stretched into a 30th year.

Back-to-back matches against New Zealand were not the least effective way to prepare for a deep World Cup pool that includes England – the hosts – Wales and Fiji. Cheika used 21 starters over the two weeks and, considering where Australia were when he took over last autumn as the third head coach in little more than a year, the country that have won the two previous World Cups hosted in the British Isles no longer look an also-ran.

“I think they’re on the right path,” said the New Zealand coach, Steve Hansen. “They have got some pretty talented players and they showed last week that, if you don’t turn up with the right attitude yourselves, you’re in trouble. They are a really good rugby side and, while they are in a tough pool, they will be battle-hardened if they get through it and a tough side to beat.”

Cheika has said that Cooper will be part of his 31 for England but he has an abundance of players who can play at 10: Bernard Foley, Matt Toomua, Matt Giteau, Kurtley Beale, Christian Lealiifano and even James O’Connor, who is on the outside but not forgotten. What he has yet to establish is his strongest 15 and he will have time at the start of the World Cup, with England and Wales their last two group opponents.

Auckland highlighted the importance of David Pocock to Australia after a plague of injuries suffered by the back-row. He played at No8 in the victory over New Zealand in Sydney but was on the bench at the weekend and Australia’s strong start was undermined by a spate of turnovers as the All Blacks achieved a superiority at the breakdown that had been the Wallabies’ the week before.

There is no more dangerous side with turnover possession than New Zealand, especially when Dan Carter is in his pomp. There were fears that he had gone the way of Tiger Woods, from supreme to merely mortal, but the way he created the first try, stepping out of a challenge and into space to free Dane Coles outside him, was peerless. His goal-kicking, too, befitted a player with more than 1,500 Test points.

Cooper, New Zealand-born and reviled as usual at Eden Park, a ground where he suffered a serious knee injury during the 2011 World Cup play-off victory over Wales, suffered by comparison with his rival but, with rugby union’s zeitgeist threatening to change from bash to dash, or at least become a hybrid – England were overwhelmed at forward by France on Saturday but won thanks to the brilliance of their running game – a player capable of turning dust into gold will have a part to play.

Australia’s backs are no longer living off scraps. Scott Sio has added ballast to their scrum, forming a front row with Stephen Moore and Sekope Kepu that is prepared to engage rather than get the ball away hurriedly. With the referee Romain Poite, the bete noire of a number of Wallaby front rows, in charge of the England game at Twickenham, the scene of so many scrummaging humiliations, the improvement will receive its ultimate test.

They also have Israel Folau at full-back, the scorer of their try after he anticipated a kick, caught the ball and ran 60 metres to salvage something from the day. It was his first of the year but a backline that contains Folau, Cooper, Giteau (or Matt Toomua), Tevita Kuridrani and Adam Ashley-Cooper will turn parity of possession into gain far more often than not.

“We are working very hard to create something very special on and off the field,” said Cooper. Any player who had said that 10 months ago would have been sneered at but, while Cheika has a first defeat since Twickenham last November to reflect on before a training camp in Chicago and a match against the USA on 5 September, no one is laughing at the Wallabies any more.


Paul Rees

The GuardianTramp

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