Green, old and cold – how the Wallabies lost their bounce

Michael Cheika speaks to Australia

Sporting the tracksuit of new club Bordeaux Begles, a cap and sunglasses, Adam Ashley-Cooper rummages in his dressing-room locker.

The Australian turns to face the camera and slowly thumbs through a bundle of Monopoly banknotes, raining them down the lens like Floyd Mayweather.

The video, which appeared online in December 2015, was the final tongue-in-cheek shot in a social media skirmish with Brian O’Driscoll.

The Ireland and Lions great had claimed that Ashley-Cooper’s recent move to the Top 14 had been motivated by “a bit of sunshine and a pension” rather than a desire to win things.

Ashley-Cooper strongly disagreed, but surely even he would have been surprised that the 2019 World Cup was still a possibility.

Adam Ashley Cooper

Ashley-Cooper will be 35 by the time Japan 2019 kicks off and since his spat with O’Driscoll has swapped France for the lucrative mediocrity of Japan’s Top League.

Yet, more than two years after his 116th, he won his 117th cap against Italy on Saturday after a shock recall to the Wallabies set-up.

“When I first heard about it, I thought it was an interesting call,” former Australia full-back and 1999 World Cup winner Matt Burke told BBC Sport.

“He is a kind of a last link to the amateurs. He was around with the likes of George Gregan and Stephen Larkham and maybe it is a different ethos and mindset, a different era.

“From all accounts he has brought that training and pride, it is just small cultural things that can help a team without the Ws stacking up in the ledger.”

And the Aussies have been short on Ws. They arrive at Twickenham on Saturday with just four from their past 14 Tests.

It is not a brief blip. Since the last World Cup, where they were beaten finalists, they have won only 41% of their matches.

In Israel Folau, Kurtley Beale, Quade Cooper, Bernard Foley and Will Genia, they have a generation of superb strike-runners and playmakers.

In David Pocock and Michael Hooper, they have two of the finest breakdown operators in the game.

The tight five, usually the Wallabies’ soft underbelly, has some solidity and snarl.

But those parts have stubbornly refused to add up on the scoreboard bottom line.

Coach Warren Gatland said Wales were “probably the most comfortable we’ve been defensively against Australia” in his 11 years in charge after a 9-6 success a fortnight ago.

Matt Burke with 1999 World Cup

His under-pressure counterpart, Michael Cheika, has been backed by Rugby Australia, but has resorted to increasingly leftfield options, such as Ashley-Cooper’s recall and the promotion of 18-year-old Jordan Petaia, to jump-start his flat-lining team.

“There is a lack of direction,” adds Burke.

“When they click into gear, it is great, but sadly it is the in-between, the inconsistencies that are stifling this team,” adds Burke.

“They want to run the ball, but they have to mix up their play.

“One of the biggest attributes I learned from playing in the UK was different styles of play for different conditions. Kicking can be so influential whether it be pinpoint box kicks or long arrows into the corner.

“Our kicking is certainly not up to standard, it seems to the reactive rather than proactive and prevents us building that pressure.

“They fall into that trap of giving it to Folau and just hoping he can produce something, rather than putting the ball in the right spots, constructing a platform and creating a mismatch.”

Watching Beale punt aimlessly down the length of the Millennium Stadium to a waiting Wales back three in Cardiff, certainly supported that theory.

However, there is no coach with a better CV for sorting out the mess than the incumbent.

Australia’s last five matches
29 September Lost to South Africa 23-12 Port Elizabeth
6 October Beat Argentina 45-34 Salta
27 October Lost to New Zealand 37-20 Yokohama
10 November Lost to Wales 9-6 Cardiff
17 November Beat Italy 26-7 Padova

Former Leinster boss Cheika came to the Australia job in October 2014, less than a year before the start of the 2015 World Cup.

That Australia had lost their previous three games was almost secondary to allegations involving Beale, an offensive text message and a slanging match with a female team official.

But Cheika, bolstered by a change in Rugby Australia policy that enabled him to call up France-based veterans Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell, coaxed some thrilling rugby and a run to the World Cup final out of the team.

“You don’t have to be the best team to win a World Cup,” says Burke, who lifted the trophy in 1999 after favourites New Zealand were upset by France.

“By virtue of the side of the draw, other teams losing matches, you don’t have to be the best team all the way through. There is always hope, but you would rather go into the World Cup with some confidence and wins behind you.

“There are some really talented guys but it just has to get directed in the right way. They have to be open to change to get these victories.”

Twickenham, where Australia wreaked merry havoc on hosts England three years ago, would be the perfect place to start.

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BBC Sport – Rugby Union

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