SYDNEY: Michael Cheika has never been one to shirk a challenge and the Wallabies coach barely had time to digest a first win of the season before turning to a pretty imposing one — back-to-back tests against the world champion All Blacks.
Australia have faced New Zealand 12 times under Cheika going into their Aug. 10 clash in Perth, winning two and losing 10 of those contests, including the 34-17 defeat in the 2015 Rugby World Cup final.
Since that Twickenham title decider, the Wallabies have rarely hit the same heights and in Saturday's 16-10 win over Argentina, there were only flashes of the sort of rugby they would need to play to repeat the feat later this year.
There were, though, enough improvements — particularly in defence and the scrum — from the heavy loss to South Africa in their Rugby Championship opener to offer Cheika some confidence his side would be competitive against New Zealand.
“We're prepared to go up another, I don't know how many levels it might take, but whatever it is, it's about whether we want to take a step up and whether we will take a step up to go and compete there," Cheika told reporters after the match in Brisbane.
Australia's final match in the truncated Rugby Championship in Perth will be followed by the second Bledisloe Cup test against the All Blacks in Auckland the following week.
However imposing that task might be, the reality of World Cup rugby means Australia might not have to face their trans-Tasman Sea rivals at all in Japan, however deep they go into the tournament.
The Wallabies have built a reputation for peaking when it matters over the eight previous editions of rugby's showpiece event, two of which they have won.
Cheika said there were signs that the squad was starting to develop the sort of spirit and tactical coherence that would help them fire in their unlikely quest for a third world title.
“What I'm seeing in the way that the guys are going about their business is you had a lot of guys play their first game tonight and saw that they were very committed in what they brought," he added.
“I think anyone that comes in … they'll be ready to go and try to build on that momentum. We know how difficult that task will be, but I really believe in these players.
“Just the environment they're creating at the moment amongst themselves – nothing to do with us – will help them down the line to achieve bigger things than they thought they could earlier on in the year."