LONDON, Oct 31 (Reuters) - The agony of losing the World Cup final to New Zealand will not linger long for Australia.
As gut-wrenching as it was for the Wallabies to fall to their bitter arch-rivals, they can still take great comfort from knowing they may have won a bigger battle.
Despite being one of the sport’s traditional superpowers, rugby still struggles for constant attention in Australia, one of the few countries in the world with four different professional football codes competing in the same market place.
Australian Rules Football and rugby league have always been the most widely followed winter sports Down Under with the popularity of rugby and soccer often fluctuating, depending on the fortunes of the national team.
One of the few sports where Australia has not succeeded on the international stage, soccer received a major shot in the arm this year when Australia won the Asian Cup for the first time, while rugby was still floundering and in need of a quick fix.
The Wallabies had not won the World Cup since 1999 and not made a final since 2003. Their fair weather fans were losing faith in a team that was regularly losing games, a national governing body (ARU) that was losing money and a divided side that was embroiled in a series of off-field scandals.
Then along came Michael Cheika, who was appointed as the new head coach when Ewen McKenzie quit just over 12 months out from the World Cup.
With no time to waste, the no-nonsense son of Lebanese migrants who made his fortune in the women’s fashion industry, set in motion his vision of what Australian rugby needed to win back the hearts and minds of his countryman.
Making a big impression at the World Cup was just one part of his mission.
His first job was to get the Wallabies back playing the game the way Australians want - abandoning the cautious forward-based approach that had taken hold and returning to the riskier but more instinctive running game.
One of the first assistant coaches he hired was Stephen Larkham, a World Cup winner with the Wallabies in 1999 and one of Australia’s best exponents of attacking rugby.
”I’ve been brought up with tries, attacking football,“ Cheika said. ”I understand that it’s more difficult but if you don’t try to score them you’re not going to.
“It does leave you open and can leave you open on the counter punch sometimes...but I think that’s how Australians want us to play.”
Then Cheika went to work on fixing Australia’s wonky scrum, recruiting Argentine great Mario Ledesma, then he called on Nathan Grey to tighten up the defence.
“We worked really hard in defence and that’s something we want to be able to do because it’s a sign of team spirit and we want to work hard there,” Cheika explained.
He began searching for players with the characteristics he wanted, encouraging some who had given up on representing their country and gone to Europe, to come home and try again.
He also persuaded the ARU to let him pick foreign-based players who had played at least 60 tests, then gambled successfully by moving David Pocock from openside flanker to number eight so he could get him and Michael Hooper on the field at the same time.
The team rediscovered its mojo, playing a brand of rugby that has had everyone at home sitting up and watching them again.
Their unexpected run to the World Cup final was a roller-coaster ride from start to finish that ultimately ended in disappointment but it showed that the Wallabies are back on track after a years in the wilderness.
“We haven’t tried to manufacture anything,” Cheika said.
“We have got our supporters in Australia enjoying the game again and that’s not marketing. I‘m not from the marketing department. It is good for them to feel that they are attached to the team.” (Reporting by Julian Linden; Editing by Jon Boyle)