What a difference a year makes. Australia is into the quarter finals of the Rugby World Cup, having progressed through the group stage in Pool A, undefeated.
This is the group which has long been dubbed the ‘group of death’ because of the calibre of the teams it contains -- four of the top nine in the world rankings.
Having come to the World Cup under a cloud of doubt as to whether this team was up to the challenge of a RWC campaign, the Wallabies is now being viewed afresh as the main contender for the ultimate prize -- the Webb-Ellis Cup.
Australia is a team almost unrecognisable on and off the field compared to the one fans watched play the 2014 Rugby Championship -- where it finished third -- and then implode due to off field dramas between a player, coach and staff in October last year.
The words reincarnation, re-emergence and reinvigorate all come to mind when making that comparison.
The man responsible for this change is new coach, Michael Cheika, who took up the position just 12 months ago following the resignation of Ewen McKenzie.
Cheika’s philosophy on rugby is about relationships, the enjoyment of the game for both players and spectators alike and most importantly about the culture of the team -- unity within the team with increased positivity and belief.
Of course on a more pragmatic level, he also believes in an attacking game -- aggressive, creative and not being scared to throw the ball around, balanced with a strong defensive line, as has been evidenced by the style of play the team has displayed in this year’s Rugby Championship -- which the Wallabies won -- and in the World Cup so far.
He has not done it alone. One of the key elements in his plan is the coaching staff he has put in place.
The Wallabies’ scrum has been an area of play which has come in for strong criticism in recent years. The man behind the massive improvement in the scrum formation is former Argentinian hooker, Mario Ledesma.
He has changed the structure and the impact of the Australian scrum, tripling the time spent on it in training and focusing on the tight construction and the power generation through the middle.
The Wallabies’ defensive line has also come under scrutiny dating back to the time when Kiwi Robbie Deans was coach. Deans was known as a coach who preferred a conservative game plan and under whom Australia’s defensive skill-set was not a focus and therefore diminished over time.
But former Wallaby Nathan Grey has slowly but surely transformed the quality of the Australian defensive line in 2015.
This was no more obvious than on the weekend when Australia played its final Pool game against Wales in what will go down as a classic game won through defence.
Grey is joined in the Wallabies’ coaching group by former team mate Stephen Larkham and, along with Ledesma, they are now proving to be the main catalysts behind Australia’s current winning form under Cheika.
The breadth and depth of the talent Cheika has recruited has also been the subject of much talk since he took over the coaching role reintroducing veterans like Giteau and Mitchell to the team, returning from overseas playing careers, as well as showing confidence in young emerging talent like McMahon, Toomua and Skelton.
Cheika’s philosophy of positivity and unity is never more underlined than in his referral to the team of 23 players being composed of starters and finishers not 15 players plus the reserve bench.
It remains to be seen just how far this transformation has progressed and, although perhaps not yet complete, if it is enough to secure the Wallabies the biggest prize in the world of rugby.Suggest a correction