London rush hour, Monday morning. As London bustles, the Wallabies step softly into their working week which, for Bernard Foley and a handful of his mates, started with an early, low-key chat with the press at their Westminster team base.
Theirs was a better weekend than most of those filing through the Tube or filling the iconic red double-decker buses, though the worth of their win over the hosts on Saturday was diluted by the fact that the major Australian news outlets refused to send reporters to the UK to cover the event. Not ideal in the daily battle for hearts and minds.
A dispute over the small print in the tournament’s official media accreditation agreement saw to that, but the handful of London-based Aussies journalists present still need to file their copy before the end of business back home so that means sleepy breakfast briefings in the team hotel. Maybe it’s the hour or the glow of that win against England, but it’s all so civil, the bonhomie unbroken even by the English journalist inevitably asking for opinions on Stuart Lancaster’s future, or even by the news of Michael Hooper’s citing that wouldn’t break until later in the morning.
Defence coach Nathan Grey takes centre stage and plays a straight bat. Suggestions that England approached the referee at half-time in Twickenham about issues at the scrum are given short thrift, so too queries about whether the tournament will suffer in the absence of the hosts.
None of that concerns them.
Gray’s input is clipped and on message, the only sliver of news coming in the form of wing Rob Horne whose shoulder injury is much better than expected after Saturday’s bump, while Matt Giteau and Israel Folau’s minor knocks were just that: Minor. Through it all, Bernard Foley sits unobtrusively to one side, or at least as unobtrusively as someone who scored 28 of his side’s 33 points at the weekend can, but it isn’t long before he finds himself cornered by a handful of faces bearing recording devices.
“It was great to get that result and it was more from the team performance than the individual,” he offered. “We were so consistent and the forward pack really set that platform in their setpiece, especially the front five, and then the back row have worked tirelessly in every game. Their cover defence and work at the breakdown was probably the difference.”
This is a Wallaby team transformed in under a year from one of eclectic, unfocused brilliance into an outfit in which all the pieces finally seem to be in place and synchronised. Foley’s presence in the out-half pocket is by no means a minor part of that. Michael Cheika has entrusted the direction of his team to the man he coached at the New South Wales Waratahs and one who earned the nickname ‘Iceman’ from ex-player turned TV commentator Nathan Sharpe for his winning Super Rugby title penalty two seasons ago.
The Top Gun moniker isn’t one he cares for. “Iceman dies, doesn’t he?” He doesn’t actually, but the name has stuck, in part because he landed a drop goal last November that yanked the lead from Wales at the Millennium Stadium in the closing stages. Just five points separated the countries that day and the result, or the margin of it, was hardly a surprise given the frequency of such close calls in the Wallabies’ favour in the course of a ten-game unbeaten run against Warren Gatland’s men. “It always comes down to the last five or 10 minutes. It’s just the way the two teams approach the games. They tend to be high-scoring with a fair few tries scored. You can’t relax against a quality team like Wales. Their outside backs can really hurt you.”
Still, that run of failures against Australia is bound to wriggle its way into Welsh thoughts this Saturday should the sides find themselves close on the scoreboard coming down the stretch in a Pool A game which will decide who avoids South Africa in the last eight.
“I don’t think so,” said Foley. “Once you are in that battle you forget about all recent games you played against them or recent form. It’s just coming down to winning the next play and doing the next job you’ve got to do on the field. Cheika hasn’t been part of any of those games besides the last one, which was his first Test match, so there’s not much to take out of that era.”
Don’t believe a word of it.
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