Adam Ashley-Cooper, Scott Fardy, Scott Sio, Israel Folau and Michael Hooper at training on Friday. Picture: Getty ImagesLONDON: It looms as the greatest feat in Australian rugby history.
But, to complete it, the Wallabies must beat what has been described as the greatest team in rugby history in the long-awaited first trans-Tasman World Cup final.
Having fought back from their lowest depths, and survived a brutal draw and two scares in their sudden-death matches, only the defending champion All Blacks stand in the way of the Wallabies and their final frontier at Twickenham on Saturday (Sunday 3am AEDT).
Both southern hemisphere giants, the world’s top two teams in the rankings, have a shot at becoming the first nation to lift the Webb Ellis Cup three times.
But, for the Wallabies, another victory at the spiritual home of rugby would top the deeds of Australia’s champion 1991 and 1999 outfits and complete the most remarkable of coaching feats by master planner, manager and motivator Michael Cheika.
While Bob Dwyer and Rod Macqueen will forever be hailed for plotting Australia’s two previous against-the-odds World Cup triumphs, neither coach had to overcome the obstacles Cheika has cleared since taking charge of a squad in disarray barely a year ago.
Even assistant coach Stephen Larkham, a hero of Australia’s last triumph 16 years ago, marvels at what the Wallabies’ class of 2015 have accomplished in less than half the time that the past two triumphant outfits had to prepare for the global showpiece.
“We’ve had an accelerated little growth together, whereas in 1999 and 2003 we had two years of preparation,” Larkham said of Cheika’s 15-Test reign.
“But I’d say these boys are at the stage we were at in particularly 1999 and 2003.”
The final shapes as a classic, with the Wallabies facing a formidable All Blacks outfit inspired by outgoing greats Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu and Keven Mealamu.
The titleholders’ devastating dominance is illustrated in their record of just three losses in 53 Tests since their drought-breaking 2011 World Cup win.
And with just one defeat to the Wallabies in 11 encounters during that period, the All Blacks will start as deserved favourites to become the first team to win back-to-back World Cups.
But the Wallabies have good reason to take confidence, dating right back to their 27-19 Rugby Championship-deciding win over the All Blacks in Sydney in August, when the David Pocock-Michael Hooper combination was unleashed.
They are a much stronger team two months into their tough World Cup path and with the return of fit-and-firing halfback general Will Genia and workaholic lock Kane Douglas, who did not play in Sydney.
The All Blacks do not have a mortgage on experience in the final, either.
With four Test centurions and 834 caps in the starting line-up, this is the most experienced Wallabies side ever assembled.
The biggest question mark is over how much their campaign, so much harder than New Zealand’s, has sapped them, and whether they can maintain their high-octane, high-pressure game for the full distance.
As ever, Cheika has warned his charges to stay in the moment and disregard the accolades supplied by others.
“I’m not in for the big, sweeping statements. I’m a big believer that your next game is the one that proves who you are,” he said.
“The minute you start relying on cliches or tags or titles, you’ll get pinched.
“It’s happened too many times.”
Australia: Israel Folau, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Tevita Kuridrani, Matt Giteau, Drew Mitchell, Bernard Foley, Will Genia, David Pocock, Michael Hooper, Scott Fardy, Rob Simmons, Kane Douglas, Sekope Kepu, Stephen Moore (captain), Scott Sio.
Reserves: Tatafu Polota-Nau, Greg Holmes, James Slipper, Dean Mumm, Ben McCalman, Nick Phipps, Matt Toomua, Kurtley Beale.
Coach: Michael Cheika.
New Zealand: Ben Smith, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu, Julian Savea, Dan Carter, Aaron Smith, Kieran Read, Richie McCaw (captain), Jerome Kaino, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Owen Franks, Dane Coles, Joe Moody.
Reserves: Keven Mealamu, Ben Franks, Charlie Faumuina, Victor Vito, Sam Cane, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Beauden Barrett, Sonny Bill Williams.
Coach: Steve Hansen.
TV: World Cup final, live on Nine, Gem and Fox Sports 2, Sunday 3am kick-off.