# Second best
Cheika sees World Cup defeat as the beginning of Wallabies' journey
The former Leinster boss says his team can close the gap on the All Blacks by playing them frequently.

THEY CAME UP short against the best team in the world in the end, but it’s been an incredible journey for the Wallabies over the past 12 months under Michael Cheika.

The ragged outfits of the Robbie Deans and Ewen McKenzie eras, which only intermittently performed, have been replaced by a far more consistent, motivated and rounded Australian team.

Britain Rugby WCup New Zealand Australia Tim Ireland Cheika after accepting his runners-up medal on Saturday. Tim Ireland

Cheika – now the World Rugby coach of the year – provided several Midas-like measures in ensuring that the ‘Giteau Law’ came to pass and bringing Stephen Larkham, Nathan Grey and Mario Ledesma into his coaching staff.

The Wallabies were fortunate that David Pocock has returned to full fitness this year, showing the kind of form over the entirety of 2015 that underlines that Dan Carter’s world player of the year award came on the basis of the World Cup only.

Perhaps Cheika’s greatest achievement has been motivating the players to a whole new level. The likes of Rob Simmons, Sekope Kepu, Will Genia and Kurtley Beale have returned to form levels that had seemed a distant memory a year ago.

Kane Douglas, meanwhile, once again looks a different player under Cheika to the one who spent a season with Leinster.

There were several examples of Australia’s spirit in this World Cup, with the 13-man stand against Wales a particular highlight. Though they were well beaten by the brilliant All Blacks in the final, Cheika was proud to see his team make a game of it.

“We clawed our way back into the contest and changed the momentum of the game at 21-17,” said Cheika. “Even when we got seven points behind we could have brought it to extra-time, we were right back in the hunt.

“We could have easily gone home then. We could have been happy, we had a good campaign, we’re sweet. But the heart, the courage in this team will last us going forward. They stayed in the battle to the end.”

Michael Cheika arrives Dan Sheridan / INPHO Chieka arrives at Twickenham before the final. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

That much is a pre-requisite for any team with high ambitions, which these Wallabies most certainly do. They will look to defend their Rugby Championship crown in 2016, aware that their stars will be back for more.

Pocock is 27, Bernard Foley only 26. Fullback Israel Folau – so stunted by an ankle injury in this tournament – is 26 too, while Michael Hooper turned 24 only days ago. Scrum commander Scott Sio is a 24-year-old, as is barrelling centre Tevita Kuridrani.

Captain Stephen Moore is among the elder statesman at 32, while Matt Giteau is a year older, but both men show no signs of slowing down. Wing pair Adam Ashley-Cooper and Drew Mitchell are both 31 and contracted in France, so perhaps Cheika may be tempted to experiment in that area.

In the shape of abrasive flanker Sean McMahon, intelligent young backs Andrew Kellaway and Kyle Godwin, the gigantic Will Skelton and several others, there are emerging faces for Cheika to track too. For the ex-Leinster boss, this is only the start.

We have made good ground over the last 12 months and we’ve got to keep growing,” said Cheika. “At this point in the tournament for us, I said to the lads ‘don’t be counting down lads, this is just the start.’ We’re just starting.

“We want to do really good things for Australian rugby going forward, both by the way we play the game and the results as well by consequence. With the guys that are here and the guys that are back home playing as well.

“That’s something we want to keep doing. The more we test ourselves against South Africa, New Zealand, Argentina in the Championship, and then the outbound tours, the better we’ll get.”

Michael Hooper and Michael Cheika before the match Billy Stickland / INPHO Hooper has just turned 24. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Whatever about the Wallabies continuing to grow, New Zealand will remain the chief stumbling block to success in the Southern Hemisphere, even without the legends of the game who are moving on from the Test arena.

Cheika had pride in his Wallabies’ fight at Twickenham on Saturday but understands that there is ground to be made up. Right now the Kiwis are a long stride ahead of the chasing pack.

How do the Australians close the gap in the coming years?

“You just stay at it,” said Chieka. “You just stay at it and keep trying to improve, keep testing yourself. We’re lucky that we get to play them regularly in the Rugby Championship, so we can keep trying to improve.

“You’ve got to mark yourself against the best.”

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