Make no mistake, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen and his coaching staff will be feeling nervous about playing the Wallabies in the Rugby World Cup final at Twickenham this weekend. Very nervous indeed.
Sure, they’ve had the wood on the Wallabies for what feels like an eternity, but this Wallabies team is different. If you listen to their post-match press conferences, to a man they speak the same language, never big-noting themselves, always respectful of the opposition.
They repeatedly thank their supporters at the ground and genuinely want to make the Aussie fans back home proud. This World Cup campaign has been fabulous stuff by the Wallabies, both on and off the field.
I also get the feeling that anyone connected with the Wallabies will not be satisfied with reaching the final of the 2015 World Cup. There’s a certain piece of silverware to hold aloft.
The blinding aura of invisibility of the All Blacks is gone, certainly as far as the Wallabies go.
While the All Blacks are deservedly the number one ranked team in the world based on a phenomenal win-loss record over all and sundry, they can be beaten. The second-ranked Wallabies will have gained enormous self-belief by beating the All Blacks in Sydney in August.
A full-strength Wallabies outfit put in an All Blacks-type performance on New Zealand, making them look downright clueless at times, which I’ve rarely witnessed in an All Blacks side.
The Wallabies’ 27-19 victory was no fluke. It was a controlled, aggressive and tactically astute performance that sent warning signs across the Tasman to all those fanatical All Blacks supporters. From that point on All Blacks fans knew it was game on for the ultimate prize, the Rugby World Cup.
For the return match at Eden Park a week later, Michael Cheika did something that a lot of people thought very strange at the time. He made six changes, which included replacing David Pocock with Wyclif Palu at No.8, Quade Cooper came in for Bernard Foley at fly-half, Will Skelton moved into the starting line-up and Nic White was half-back (poor Nic White didn’t even make the squad for the World Cup).
Cheika’s thinking was brilliant! By resting key players, and experimenting with fringe players, Cheika and the Wallabies made a statement; their eyes were firmly elsewhere, and the Bledisloe Cup could wait.
It didn’t matter that the All Blacks came out and smashed the Wallabies at Eden Park, and won in a canter, 41–13. Big deal. There was no psychological damage done in losing to the All Blacks by experimenting with fringe players who would benefit enormously from the experience.
I’m not suggesting Cheika deliberately went out to lose but winning wasn’t his priority. The experimentation of players and combinations prevented the All Blacks from squaring the ledger in the manner they would have liked. More importantly it prevented New Zealand from having another 80 minutes to learn how to counteract a full-strength Wallabies team before the World Cup.
Cheika knew exactly what he was doing. Every game the Wallabies have played under Cheika, every player selection, is aimed at taking home ‘Bill’ this weekend.