Australia forge bond through search for identity, says Bernard Foley

Michael Cheika has asked every member of his squad to trace his family tree in an effort to bind them together, and it seems to be paying off at the Rugby World Cup

When Bernard Foley and Will Genia, Australia’s increasingly influential half‑back pairing, were pressed on Wednesday for the magical secret behind the Wallabies’ performances at this World Cup they reached for the same word: identity. This wasn’t one of those vacuous buzz phrases beloved of sporting types, however. Rather it is the thumping heartbeat of Michael Cheika’s philosophy.

As Foley explained, every member of the Australia squad has been asked by the coach to trace their family tree in order to try to bind the squad together. “I won’t give it all away but it’s about identity – who you are and where you’ve come from,” Foley said cheerily. “It’s a good way of the team understanding each other. I’m from Cork or Munster territory.”

And an unusual blend of physicality and genealogy – hard work with a warm dollop of Who Do You Think You Are? – appears to have forged a spirit missing until Cheika became coach in 2014. Certainly Genia has noticed the change. As the scrum-half, who moved from Papua New Guinea to Australia in 2000 to go to school, put it: “Cheik’s biggest thing was to create an identity and everyone had to buy into that. It has made us better people and better footballers. In the years I have been involved we haven’t really had something that says: ‘This is what you have to be as a person to be a Wallaby.’”

Now they do. But there have been inspirations from the more recent past too, with Foley keen to stress the importance of Stephen Larkham, the fly-half who guided Australia to their second World Cup win, in 1999. “I remember watching how he took control of that World Cup,” Foley said. “He was definitely an inspiration of mine. He has so much experience as a player that he can pass on to us. But also as a coach he sees it – when it comes to the game-plans and structures we want to play, he is invaluable.”

While Larkham was inspiring Australia, Foley was a 10-year-old schoolboy in Sydney embarking on what became an unusual route to the national team: Sydney University to study economics, two years in the colts programme, the sevens programme and the 2010 Commonwealth Games then, finally, as a 24-year-old in 2013, his first senior cap.

Along the way another influence – his father – was ever present, even sneaking out of hospital after he had a triple-bypass operation to watch him as a 14-year-old. “They wouldn’t let him out for the day but he made mum sneak him out of the hospital,” said Foley. “But during the game I got a kick in the side. I didn’t think much of it, I was just a bit winded, but then I started feeling pretty ill. Then when they were dropping dad back at the hospital afterwards, they said: ‘Why don’t you drop in as well and get checked out.’ I gave a urine sample and it came out bright red. It was pretty frightening. I found out I had a rupture in my kidney. I had to spend 12 months off the rugby pitch.”

Foley might have been a late bloomer in Test rugby but he appears comfortable with the pressure that is increasingly being placed on his shoulders. A question about the battle with Quade Cooper for the No10 jersey, which was surely settled when Foley scored 28 points in Australia’s victory over England, might have thrown some but he insisted the pair were more likely to bounce ideas off each other than daggers. “I’ve really enjoyed working with Quade and I think my game has definitely grown a lot competing at every training session with him,” said Foley. “It hasn’t been a battle directly; it’s definitely been a relationship where we’ve been wiring together and bouncing ideas off each other.”

The relationship between Foley and Genia, meanwhile, is progressing nicely despite still being in the embryonic stages. Genia believes this is by design, not accident. “In camp we mix combinations, so sometimes he trains with Nick, I trade with Quade so you mix in and out,” he said. “So from a half-back’s point of view it’s been quite seamless and I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to play with Foles, because obviously for a long period of time I’ve been playing with Quade.”

But Foley believes there is plenty of room for improvement. “The way we were able to get so many training reps in meant it didn’t feel raw to us,” he said. “It’s been good to play a couple of Tests with him but we’ve got a fair bit to improve on and we can take it to another level, for sure.”

Certainly Cheika expects his half-back pair to kick on against Scotland on Sunday. “There’s a lot of energy there and I am looking for them to keep that going,” he said. “They have improvements in them, and we have big improvements in us from the last game. I think they need to make that tangible, not just coach-speak.”

He is certainly not getting carried away, despite Australia’s impressive performances in the group stages. “We have done nothing yet,” he added. “We are taking it a game at a time and keep walking that tightrope.

And Genia says Australia’s squad are taking his coach’s stern message to heart as they make their final preparations for Scotland. “We have come through the pool having won all our games, but those things count for nothing now that it is knockout rugby,” he said. “It’s going to be a tough test come Sunday, we know that.”


Sean Ingle

The GuardianTramp

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