As is often the case for Australia, come the end of a World Cup cycle they have to start almost from scratch again. But after a horrendous start to an exhausting 2016, Michael Cheika's team are on an upward curve again before Saturday's rendezvous with Ireland.
Their calendar year has presented them with 15 Tests in eight countries against other members of the world’s top eight, seven of them against the world’s top two ranked sides, New Zealand and England. But after beginning the year with a three-match series whitewash at home to England and back-to-back beatings by the All Blacks, the Wallabies arrived in Dublin having won six of their last eight games.
Furthermore, Saturday night’s entertaining 25-23 win over France in Paris, following 32-8 and 23-22 wins over Wales and Scotland, means the Irish game is the penultimate leg of a first Grand Slam tour since Mark Ella’s vintage class of 1984. And that tour did not encompass a game against France.
With eight players added to the travelling 36-man squad for next Thursday’s game against the French Barbarians in Bordeaux, Cheika admits this tour has been invaluable both for himself and the squad.
“I’ve never had to go through a renovation like this or a change like this, because in club rugby or provincial rugby you can just buy players or bring a guy in from overseas.
“This is the first experience I’ve had of saying ‘well, there’s change happening and it’s got to be done with younger players who are untried at this level, and every game is a Test match’. It’s something I’ve had to learn to do very fast but at the same time it’s been very enjoyable, that learning, even with some of the pain we took earlier in the year.”
By contrast, he admits, this year underlined how more advanced the All Blacks have been in their succession planning. “I think they’ve been doing it longer. They started doing it after ’07. We’re only just starting to do it now.”
Having made 10 changes for the game in Stade de France, and given full debuts to five players, Cheika is in a position to recall the likes of Israel Folau, winger Dane Haylett-Petty, centre Reece Hodge (a try-scorer against both Wales and Scotland), the front-row of Scott Sio, Stephen Moore, Sekope Kepu, lock Rory Arnold and backrowers Lopeti Timani and the outstanding Michael Hooper, who this year won the John Eales award for a second time. Only Moore and Sio featured on the bench in Paris.
Yet bearing in mind their defeat here two years ago, and Ireland’s form against the All Blacks, Cheika said yesterday: “It’s going to be the toughest game we’ve had on the tour. We’re three games into our tour, every game has been tough. Ireland have beaten the team that no one has beaten over the last 18 months, or however long it is, and then gone close again. They also won in South Africa; you can’t deny those numbers.”
“I feel I know them more. I know exactly how hard it’s going to be at Lansdowne Road and all that goes with that for us. We’ve got a lot of guys that haven’t had that experience before in this squad. We’ve had 13 debutants this year, so a lot of change in our squad and we’re starting to get our attitude right. It’s still very hard to win away from home. We just got to start again, get our preparation exactly right. That’s one of the big things we’ve been trying to learn on this trip – everyone to learn how to prep exactly right. And then go out there on Saturday and don’t worry about it. Rip in and see what happens.”
For Cheika, Ireland’s most striking feature since the sides last met has been their consistency, a trait he attributes to his successor as Leinster head coach,
"They're always up there, they're always competing in every game. They went to South Africa, without Johnny, won the first game, and were right in the second game and third games. That's not easy. We know it, we got beat there this year. And in the Six Nations they've been consistent, consistent, and I'd say that's the hallmark of the coach to be honest; they're consistent high level."
“They’re very well organised; you see it in all of their games. They’ve been the consistent marker across teams in Europe for many years in terms of quality of play and thinking about the game and how the game should be played. For me, I feel like they’re getting strong. They’re getting a new batch of players in now that seem to be – a lot of names I haven’t heard of before, but without dropping their standards at all.”
This is Cheika’s first trek to Dublin, where he coached Leinster for five seasons, since the Wallabies lost here in 2014. “I haven’t been back to Dublin a lot of times. In ’14 when we came I was just so rattled about being actually the coach of the team, I think I didn’t really get out and do anything. We were staying out of Dublin [in Killiney] so it was not as easy. There’s a lot of people here who are close to me. I’ll try and make the time to catch up with all of them.”