AUCKLAND // Whenever Australia are near Eden Park, they start whispering. As former Australian Test coach David Brockhoff told the players when they departed Sydney airport for New Zealand on Wednesday: "Eden Park ... it's full of ghosts." The Wallabies have a dreadful record in Auckland against New Zealand, not having won there since 1986, and from then on experiencing 10 consecutive defeats, with one of the worst being last year when they were thrashed by 29 points.
However, this time around, there is a certain feeling of assurance, to the extent that it is not just the Wallabies diehards who fervently believe they have a strong chance to win the Bledisloe Cup and Tri Nation series. The first step is beating the All Blacks at Eden Park tomorrow. And they must feel confident. In the 12 months since the Wallabies coach Robbie Deans has taken over, the Australian team have improved remarkably, are playing a far more inventive and entertaining strain of football, and, for the first time in years, are worth watching.
For too long, the Wallabies played structured, predictable rugby, and were punished for that, in particular at the 2007 World Cup where they suffered an undignified quarter-final exit. Deans, who was appointed after that World Cup mess, has worked on improving the team's skills - which were abominable. He has improved their kicking game and their fitness, and encouraged the players to use their brains. The scrum, so long the Wallabies weak link, is now of international standard.
Instead of being bland and robotic, Deans stressed the importance of "playing what's in front of you". And that strategy was bound to work when you focused your attack around such free spirits as half-back Luke Burgess, five-eighth Matt Giteau, centres Berrick Barnes and Stirling Mortlock, and finishers Lachie Turner, Drew Mitchell, Peter Hynes and Adam Ashley-Cooper. Overall, the most important aspect has been their improvement in midfield kicking. Before Deans arrived, the Wallabies were hopeless in that area, and unable to sustain pressure. This became a glaring frailty when they confronted the All Blacks and Daniel Carter, who had the extraordinary skill of placing his chip and high kicks wherever he wanted. The Springboks were nearly as good, especially at altitude in Johannesburg and Pretoria, regularly turning the Wallabies around.
But so far this season, the Wallabies dominated field position against both Italy and France because Giteau and Barnes were able to repeatedly force them to play out of their own quarter with brilliantly aimed kicks. Also the kicking games of Mitchell, Mortlock, Turner and Ashley-Cooper has improved remarkably. This has seen the Wallabies play at a better rhythm, and from there the self-confidence has grown.
Also the Wallabies are saying the right things this week, with Deans explaining that they are better prepared, smarter and more resourceful than they were 12 months ago. "We will be better, and believe we are a better side this year," Deans said. "We're a different side to what we were 12 months ago, but so too are the All Blacks and Springboks. The key now is adapting to the All Blacks and Springboks."
How well they are adapting will be revealed tomorrow. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org