The odds are stacked against Australia as they head into Saturday’s Rugby World Cup final with arch rivals New Zealand, but coach Michael Cheika is refusing to contemplate defeat.
Australia set up their first final meeting with the All Blacks at Twickenham this weekend with a thrilling 29-15 defeat of Argentina in Sunday’s second semi-final, but despite having been the most recent of only three teams to have beaten the defending champions since Richie McCaw lifted the Webb Ellis Cup in Auckland four years ago, Cheika knows his side is up against it.
Bookmakers have his Wallabies as 12/5 outsiders against odds-on New Zealand and, though Cheika engineered August’s Rugby Championship-sealing victory over Steve Hansen’s team, it is the following week’s Bledisloe Cup pounding they endured that is just as fresh in the mind.
“You can’t be selective in your memory,” Cheika said yesterday. “You can’t think about the game you’ve won and then forget about the one you lost by 40 a week after. You look back at one; you look back at all of them.
“Anyone that is involved in rugby hates losing and that feeling when you sit in the dressing room afterwards with your team-mates.
“You wouldn’t be playing the game otherwise. I know that’s the same for all footy players, soccer players, AFL players, you aren’t going out there to lose. That is the joy of the game.
“On Saturday there will be 46 pig-headed fellas out there trying to win.”
Wallabies captain Stephen Moore will be one of those after a series of massive games, having emerged top of the pool of death ahead of Wales and England, survived a scare against Scotland in the quarter-finals and then seen off a powerful Pumas side. His leadership, backed by fellow Australia captains as team-mates — Michael Hooper, David Pocock, Matt Giteau and Will Genia — has reinforced an excellent spirit in a squad resurgent since Cheika took over as head coach last November.
“That has been important right from the start and I think I’ve tapped into all those guys and they’ve all been terrific in how they’ve conducted themselves,” Moore said.
“There’s a lot of leadership in the group and I think we’ve seen that in our games so far and I think it will be important again this Saturday.
“It is all about doing our job well every day. There is a lot of hype around the final and it was the same last week, but there is still a game to play and that is the most important part of the week. The key thing is to improve, you’ve got to keep improving, the bar is going to go up again this week and we need to improve.”
Australia have one day fewer to raise that bar than the defending champions, but Cheika, who yesterday declared full-back Israel Folau fit and ready for Saturday, is unperturbed.
“We always knew they would be the dates and have tried to plan for that all the way through. We’ll try to get the right balance. The training will be hard when we need it to be, but we’ll also allow the guys to recover.
“We’ve had a big game every week since we came here. We understand that we need to get better, but we need to know what we need to do and how we are going to improve it.”
Cheika said the early signs were encouraging that everyone would be available for the final.
“We’re not too bad. We’ve just had recovery now and spoke to the doc and the physios,” Cheika said. “The players who went into the match with some injury are looking pretty good the way they came out of it, probably much better than we expected, so we’ll see how that progresses. There are some sore bodies, but no more than normal for a World Cup semi-final. Once we get today out of the way we can start seeing everyone running on the field and we’ll get a better opinion of how everyone is running for the week.”
Pocock, who missed the quarter-final win over Scotland with a calf injury, completed the entire match and had a very strong game, especially in defence and at the breakdown.
Folau, who also missed the quarter-final with an ankle problem, was not at his absolute best and was taken off after about an hour after being hurt in a tackle, though Cheika said it was planned that he would go off early.
“Israel Folau pulled up pretty good, he was always going to tire a bit at the end with his injury,” Cheika said.
“He got caught under a tackle, but we were taking him off anyway, because 60 was about his duration with that ankle injury. It was just the fatigue of it.”
Cheika said he had no major concerns about inside centre Matt Giteau, who left the field with a groin injury, saying he felt much better when he woke up on Monday.
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