The new and improved Wallabies are bracing for the ultimate test on rugby’s biggest stage after setting up a mouth-watering World Cup final with arch-rivals New Zealand.
A rabble when he took over as coach almost exactly one year ago, Michael Cheika has taken the Wallabies to the brink of World Cup glory after an Adam Ashley-Cooper hat-trick and another steely defensive display sealed a tense 29-15 win over Argentina on Sunday.
The victory sets up a dream final between the world’s two best teams, with New Zealand looking to become the first team to defend the Webb Ellis Cup while Australia’s unbeaten record in the United Kingdom across three World Cups goes on the line.
It is the fourth final for both nations and the winner will create history, becoming the first to hoist the trophy three times.
This All Blacks line-up, boasting all-time greats Richie McCaw, Dan Carter and Conrad Smith among others, was this week heralded as the greatest of all by Springboks mentor Heyneke Meyer.
And while his Wallabies counterpart wasn’t willing to support that compliment, Cheika did happily accept the underdog tag and said the All Blacks “have Australia’s measure”.
“You’ve got to go back in the history annals, they’ve had some pretty special teams haven’t they?” he said.
“They’re obviously the world’s No.1 aren’t they. They’re there for a reason.
“We’ve only beaten them once out of the last 10 so they’d be feeling pretty good.
“They’ve got our measure and it’s going to be up to us to do something special.”
On Sunday (Monday AEDT), it was wingers Drew Mitchell and Ashley-Cooper who conjured up that something special – combining for a brilliant match-sealing try in the final minutes.
With eight minutes remaining Mitchell set off on a sensational, winding, cross-field run where he beat eight defenders before throwing an off-target offload to Ashley-Cooper – who raced away for his third try of the afternoon.
The try killed off Argentina’s hopes of reaching a maiden final, and Mitchell became the first player since Jonah Lomu to score a hat-trick in a World Cup semi-final.
It was far from the complete performance by Australia.
The enterprising Pumas regularly created half-breaks – but as they have done throughout the World Cup, the Wallabies allowed their defensive line to bend but not break and their tryline was not breached.
“I’m really happy with the lads’ defence,” Cheika said.
“They’re a very, very strong attacking team and they tore Ireland apart last week.
“We had to work hard to stop them scoring a try.”
There are injury concerns over Israel Folau (ankle) and Matt Giteau (groin), with both leaving the clash midway through the second half.
Equally concerning was the scrum’s regression to a liability, with loosehead James Slipper conceding three penalties before being replaced midway through the second half.
The All Blacks scrum might not have the potency of the Pumas but it will still be a concern for the Wallabies, who have struggled to replace the steady influence of Scott Sio, the regular starter who has been a revelation this tournament but was sidelined with an elbow injury and remains in doubt for the final.
The Wallabies shot out of the blocks and had two tries inside the first 10 minutes, but the explosive start belied the exhausting contest that was to follow.
In just the second minute giant, second-rower Rob Simmons snatched an intercept from Pumas No.10 Nicolas Sanchez to race away and score under the posts before Ashley-Cooper crossed twice, on opposite sides of the field, from superb cut-out balls by Bernard Foley and Giteau.
Sanchez booted five penalties to have all 15 points for Argentina, who were reduced to 14 men in the first half following the sin-binning of lock Tomas Lavanini for a no-arms tackle on Folau.
The return of champion back-rower David Pocock from a calf injury had an immediate impact on the Wallabies controlling the breakdown – he had two turnovers in the opening 20 minutes and finished with four, taking his tournament tally to 14.
Pocock played the entire 80 minutes to dispel fears over his calf injury and remains Australia’s best hope of securing an upset next weekend, while No.6 Scott Fardy was also outstanding.