The Wallabies have vowed to become “a force to be reckoned with”, insisting they’ll use the pain of their heart-breaking World Cup final loss to shift the trans-Tasman power balance from New Zealand.
One year and nine days into Michael Cheika’s reign as Australian coach, the Wallabies went down 34-17 to a brilliant All Blacks outfit at Twickenham on Saturday (Sunday AEDT).
The incredible progress they’ve made in such a short time under Cheika, having sunk to their lowest-ever ranking of sixth following last year’s horror spring tour, didn’t make the loss any easier to take – but it did show that there’s light at the end of the tunnel.
New Zealand’s golden generation had a final flourish, but with man-of-the-match Dan Carter and Richie McCaw heading a stellar group of five now set to walk away from the international game, they face a difficult transitional period.
“I’m not too sure who is retiring and who is moving on from that team, but if you’re losing the likes of Dan Carter and Richie McCaw, they’re huge holes to fill,” said Adam Ashley-Cooper, who shelved talk of his own retirement.
“Not only is it their performances and talent that you’re losing, but their leadership and their experience. They’re a big spirit amongst their team.
“I think with the depth and talent that New Zealand have developed over the last couple of years, I’m sure they’ll be fine.”
Australia, too, will have significant turnover, with Europe-based Matt Giteau, Will Genia and Sekope Kepu potentially having all played their final games in gold.
But with the likes of vice-captain Michael Hooper, star fullback Israel Folau and the outstanding David Pocock coming into the peak of their careers, Australia are in good shape to end their 12-year Bledisloe Cup drought.
And it will be the pain felt on Saturday which will be driving them.
“There’s already been mention of four years down the track, and knowing the pain that we experienced after the whistle was blown at the end of the game, using that as motivation and inspiration moving forward,” Ashley-Cooper added.
“I’m sure this group, whether I’m there or not, has some special things to achieve.”
On Saturday, the Wallabies showed guts and determination to fight back from a 21-3 deficit with two tries in 10 minutes reducing the lead to just four points.
It wasn’t enough to secure a result but it was enough to highlight just how far they’d come as a team.
And they believe the platform is set for Bledisloe Cup success in the immediate future – and a serious tilt at the World Cup in Japan in 2019.
“This is only the start,” warned prop Kepu, who will now join French club Bordeaux.
“We had 11 months to work together and we’ve come this far in 11 months.
“I’m sure in four years’ time we’ll be a force to be reckoned with.”
Kepu pointed to young stars Sean McMahon, Scott Sio, Hooper and Bernard Foley as players who will benefit from a World Cup and will be well-placed in four years.
Cheika is under contract for a further two years and the ARU would be wise to lock him up long-term, considering the remarkable rise he’s overseen in the past year.
He acknowledged the grand strides his squad has taken this year and sais there was more improvement to come.
“You just stay at it: keep trying to improve, keep testing yourself again,” said Cheika.
“We’re lucky we get to play them regularly and test ourselves.
“You’ve got to mark yourself against the best and I think we’ve made good ground over the last 12 months.
“We’ve got to keep growing.
“I told the players afterwards: ‘Don’t be counting down lads, this is just the start’.
“We want to do really good things for Australian rugby going forward.”