SYDNEY, July 20 (Reuters) - Stalwart outside back Adam Ashley-Cooper believes the Wallabies are in much better shape than they have been over the last couple of years as they head towards a tough World Cup assignment in England.
Australia grabbed a last-gasp victory over South Africa to open the Rugby Championship at the weekend, ending a run of poor form that had seen them win only once in their previous seven tests.
Michael Cheika, who took over after Ewen McKenzie’s sudden resignation last year, has made wholesale changes and promised Australian rugby fans a team with a distinct identity that plays with plenty of passion.
For the first hour at Lang Park on Saturday, however, they looked very much like the teams that have struggled for cohesion in Australia’s slide down the world rankings to number six.
The coaches of England and Wales would have enjoyed the sight of the Springboks pack shunting the Wallabies around at the scrum as they make plans for their pool stage encounters at the World Cup in September.
Cheika admitted his side were often a man short at the breakdown, while the attack got plenty of width but too often ended up running into cul-de-sacs of green shirts or turning over the ball with errors.
Ashley-Cooper, who played his 105th test on the wing, bridled, however, when it was suggested that Wallabies fans had witnessed little change under Cheika.
“I think that we’re in far better shape than we have been in previous years,” the 31-year-old told reporters before the squad headed off on their two-day journey to Argentina for next Saturday’s test.
“There’s a totally different feel about the squad. With the inclusion of new players and new coaching staff.
“I think we’re in really good shape mentally, it’s an exciting year for us and I think there is a lot more pride and passion in the jersey and I’m proud to be part of that.”
Ashley-Cooper, who played for three years under Cheika at the New South Wales Waratahs, said it was understandable that the new-look backline would take time to gel.
“It was always going to be a bit scrappy in our first test together, it wasn’t going to be perfect,” he added.
“In the second half, where fitness started to play a key role, we were able to find some space, get some ascendancy and find some points in the end.”
It was Ashley-Cooper who was on the end of Australia’s most effective move when he crossed for a first-half try and they needed Tevita Kuridrani’s post-siren effort to secure the win.
“It’s always good getting a win, it’s the first test of our campaign, it’s a pretty important year with the World Cup coming up,” he added.
“It’s certainly how we wanted to kick things off.” (Editing by John O’Brien)