FAC­ING A TEST OF STRENGTH

It’s now or never for Cheika’s men to prove met­tle

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - - GRAND FINAL - JU­LIAN LIN­DEN

FOR­GET the spin about it be­ing a marathon, not a sprint.

To­day’s mon­ster World Cup clash with Wales is Aus­tralia’s big­gest match in years.

The Wal­la­bies won’t get knocked out if they lose and they won’t be gifted a run to the fi­nal in Yoko­hama on November 2 if they win.

But in the fair dinkum stakes, to­day’s game is the day we find out if the Wal­la­bies are peak­ing at the right time and are real con­tenders to Bring Back Bill or whether it’s all just hot air and they don’t have a chance in hell.

For Aus­tralia’s long suf­fer­ing fans who have en­dured four years of mis­ery since the Wal­la­bies made the 2015 fi­nal, it’s now or never for Michael Cheika’s men to walk the walk be­cause they’ve been telling ev­ery­one it’ll be right on the night for way too long.

There is a huge bonus for win­ning to­day: an eas­ier path to the fi­nal, most likely France in the quar­ter­fi­nals and ei­ther South Africa or Ire­land in the semis but that’s re­ally just the cherry on top.

A loss to­day won’t be ter­mi­nal but will leave the Wal­la­bies with a far more treach­er­ous path: prob­a­bly Eng­land in the quar­ters then New Zealand in the semis.

Like all coaches, stick­ing to the mantra that ev­ery team is as hard as the next to beat, Cheika in­sists the path the Wal­la­bies take doesn’t mat­ter but that’s just his way of try­ing to de­flect pres­sure be­cause he knows to­day’s match is the real test of whether the Wal­la­bies have what it takes.

“Ev­ery game here is a grand fi­nal,” he said. “So I’m not look­ing past any­thing be­yond this game.”

Nice try, Michael, but noone is fall­ing for that old ch­est­nut any more be­cause as tough an op­po­nent as Wales are, they’re not go­ing to be win­ning this World Cup.

If the Wal­la­bies can’t beat Wales, they may as well pack up their bags and head home now be­cause they won’t beat the All Blacks, Spring­boks or Ed­die Jones’ Eng­land and Cheika knows that well.

“We have to be ex­actly in the right headspace when we get to the kick off so we’re just ready to go,” he said.

“We don’t worry about what’s go­ing to hap­pen af­ter that game, it’s all ir­rel­e­vant, it’s all spec­u­la­tion.

“We’re just fo­cus­ing on do­ing our best and play­ing our game and en­joy­ing it and rip­ping in and feel­ing, you know, pain, bleed­ing for your team then go from there.”

In days gone by, beat­ing Wales would be a given for the Wal­la­bies.

They are the one Euro­pean team Aus­tralia has no prob­lems with, win­ning 13 of their last 14 clashes.

But those days are gone. The Wal­la­bies had their worst sea­son in 60 years in 2018 and saw their win­ning streak against Wales bro­ken. Now Wales are the favourites and teas­ing the Wal­la­bies that they have more in store.

“We have tried things in the warm-ups games and we've held a bit back,” Wales skip­per Alun Wyn Jones said.

“We per­form when big games come around. We have a big test in front of us, and we won’t shy away from that.”

While Wales were able to put the cue in the rack in their romp against Ge­or­gia, the Wal­la­bies had to dra­mat­i­cally change their game to beat a stub­born Fiji.

They got there in the end but it wasn’t pretty as they tried to throw the ball around like mil­lion­aires but just couldn’t make the passes.

It was proof they’re not as good as they think but to­day we get to see how good they re­ally are.

Wal­la­bies cen­tre James O’Con­nor stretches dur­ing a gym ses­sion in Tokyo last week. Pic­ture: AFP

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