Australia have had an up and down year but they are never down for long and recent evidence suggests they are on their way back
Stephen Larkham was regarded as a bit of a magician down Australia way when he was a player and he is still pulling rabbits out of hats as a coach helping the Wallabies find their feet after a desperate year by their lofty standards.
The former fly-half, who won 102 caps between 1996 and 2007 and the World Cup in 1999, has been on the Wallaby coaching staff since 2015 and in a year-and-a-half has seen most of what a job on the sidelines can throw up.
A World Cup final appearance, a couple of hidings from the All Blacks, a 3-0 series defeat to England was followed by a bit of a resurrection this autumn. Australia were going for a Grand Slam of the Home Nations before they got derailed in Dublin – the last team to that were Mark Ella’s champions of 1984. But a win against England on Saturday would round the year off very nicely after victories in Wales, Scotland and France.
People talk about the All Blacks since winning the last World Cup but the Australian team that lost narrowly to Ireland had five different faces in it compared to the one that lost to New Zealand on Halloween Night 2015.
Losing the likes of Adam Ashley-Cooper and Matt Giteau, Matt Toomua and Drew Mitchell, some through choice some not, is almost as big a blow as the Kiwis felt when they saw Richie McCaw, Dan Carter and Co ride off into the sunset. The Aussies have always been greater than the sum of their parts – union is well down the sporting pecking order down under – and if they get their ducks in a row again it will be bad news for the rest of the world.
“We started the season slowly but we have managed to stick with a very similar combination each week from that second All Blacks Test onwards,” said Larkham, the best Aussie No.10 since the great Ella. “Guys are starting to feel comfortable on the field. This tour has been really good for us – there have been some really close games that we have had to fight through.
“The guys have enjoyed themselves off the field and we have trained really hard and the preparation has been good throughout this campaign. The motivation, the energy, the enthusiasm in the group is very high.”
If Larkham was the sorcerer then his current apprentice is Bernard Foley, the Waratahs and Wallaby fly-half, who scored 28 points to dump England out of their own World Cup just over a year ago.
Foley explained the Wallabies stuttering performances this year but thinks the building blocks are in place for another Australian revival.
“This side has had a challenging year, no doubt about it,” he said. “We have had a lot of new combinations and there was probably a bit of a mental hangover from last year when we got together and we thought it would click. It didn’t and we had to start again.
“The maturity and the resilience shown by this side are going to be very beneficial in years to come.
“With that World Cup teams have got so long to prepare and we had three or four months of preparation together as a squad to come together and at the time it is the biggest thing you can do. A lot of teams are really peaking at that time and then there is a bit of a transition period after.” You can say that again.
Since the World Cup boss Michael Cheika has given debuts to 13 players so there is bound to be a bit of a wobble but the signs recently are encouraging, especially with the next World Cup three years away, and the drubbing in the summer is getting more distant although it is still in Larkham’s mind.
“We were pretty embarrassed by that,” Larkham said. “We have certainly moved on. A lot of players who played in that series aren’t here with us now and the combination and the motivation in this group is far different to what it was back then. You never really want to look back too much. “It would be nice to start to rectify what happened there but you are never going to fully rectify it. Our focus throughout this whole tour has been focusing on the next game. We obviously had a bit of pressure placed on us in terms of trying to win the grand slam. We lost that opportunity now but from the start of the spring tour it was always about the next game, not the last game or the game in two weeks.”
Like their cricketers the Australian rugby players are never down for long – and the past few weeks have shown they might just be on the rise again.