Waratahs, Brumbies, Wallabies all set to make play
July 14, 2014
Bernard Foley, Kurtley Beale and Nick Phipps now have to step up to another level in the Super Rugby finals © Getty Images
There are a number of coaches wandering around Australian rugby's provincial and national offices feeling relatively relaxed at the moment. That has a lot to do with their playmakers producing at the right time of the season.
As New South Wales Waratahs and the Brumbies head into the Super Rugby finals, Michael Cheika, Stephen Larkham, Laurie Fisher and even Ewen McKenzie should be feeling buoyant about something positive emerging from the past six months of endless pressure and competition.
Reds 3-34 Waratahs (Australia only)%]
Cheika knew when he took over the Waratahs rabble for last year that he had to produce by at least this season to feel comfortable in his head coaching position. Not everyone at the Waratahs' head office was doing handstands when Cheika took over as coach, knowing his confrontational style would threaten some within the organisation. There has been conflict with head office, but Cheika has emerged as the darling of Moore Park after inspiring the Waratahs to their best Super Rugby season.
In essence, Cheika has succeeded because he did what he said he would do: he changed the team culture; he got the players fit; he turned the forward pack into the most threatening of the Australian conference (now he just has to fine-tune that lineout); and he at last found someone who felt comfortable in the Waratahs' No.10 jersey.
The prime problem for the Waratahs during the Super Rugby era has been their inability to find a top-notch fly-half. Many have been tried. Many have failed. Several were diabolical.
But Cheika's belief that Bernard Foley had the required ingredients is now starting to provide rewards. A substantial reason why the Waratahs stride into the finals boasting six straight victories is that Foley is now feeling confident in this arduous role, and has the poise to properly control an attack.
Foley still has some way to go, but his combination with inside centre Kurtley Beale, which sees the pair constantly flitting between the two inner back roles, has been crucial in seeing the Waratahs going into the finals as the tournament's leading try scorers with 55.
Not far behind are the Brumbies, with 49 tries, and their productivity has much to do with their fly-half, Matt Toomua, excelling in pressure games.
Brumbies 47-25 Force (Australia only)%]
We saw one of the best individual performances this season on Friday night, when Toomua was instrumental in asserting so early on that it was the Brumbies and not their opponents - Western Force - who were going to make the finals. Toomua was on song. He was either creating the precise attacking opportunity or finishing it off, ending up with a spectacular hat-trick of tries.
Here the Brumbies coaches - Larkham and Fisher- deserve credit because they have given Toomua the freedom to trust his own instincts. Larkham is clearly a good teacher because there are glimpses of the old master in the Toomua playbook. And as the season has progressed, they have allowed the team to be more expansive than they were during the restrictive kick-oriented, territorial Jake White days. At last there has been a reappearance of the old Brumbies' attacking panache.
Observing it all is Wallabies coach McKenzie, delighted there is a considerable Australian representation at finals time. With the Rugby Championship starting in just over a month, there is no better conditioning than having his key players involved in cut-throat games during the Test lead up - especially if it includes those whom he regards as the architects of his Wallabies game plan, such as Foley, Toomua, Israel Folau, Nic White, Nick Phipps, Tevita Kuridrani, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Christian Leali'ifano and Beale. Basically the Test attacking contingent is going to be tested - in particular his Wallabies No.10-12 pairing.
So now it is up to Foley and Toomua to stand tall against overseas line-ups, including New Zealand teams who have been there and done that when big titles have been looming. If the pair can perform in this climate, then and only then can Australian rugby feel assured heading into the coming Bledisloe Cup and Mandela Challenge Plate confrontations against the All Blacks and the Springboks, respectively. If not, it could be another long Test season.
Matt Toomua is key in the Brumbies' attack © Getty Images
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