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LONDON: On any other day Adam Ashley-Cooper would be raging about the cut under his left eye.
The veteran back copped some friendly fire from winger Rob Horne during the Wallabies’ final training session on Friday. An elbow, as it turned out, that sliced open the skin for a good gush of claret.
Adam Ashley-Cooper at Wallabies training. Photo: Getty Images
The blemish might have discombobulated Australia’s resident perfectionist, who has fixed his hair after every try for nigh on 10 years now. But two days out from a World Cup semi-final, with David Pocock and Israel Folau declared fit-ish and back in the team, Ashley-Cooper knew Horne’s elbow meant his teammates were up for this one.
Why? Horne had just found out he wasn’t in the 23. Before the cynics scream self-interest, a winger scorned, here’s how Mr Rugby sees it: “I think it says that there’s selfless players and they’re putting the team first. It’s hard for a player, knowing that he’s not selected, to be motivated to still train at his best and test the guys that are starting. It says a lot about the guys in the team, the humility, the selflessness. What we’ve done, what we’ve created in this culture … that’s probably why we are here today.”
They’ve come a long way, these Wallabies, and they have far to go. For four of them this will be their third campaign to bring back Bill. Two among those – Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell – thought they wouldn’t pull on a gold jersey again.
Australia’s Adam Ashley-Cooper scores a try in the quarter-final against Scotland. Photo: Kirsty Wigglesworth
Ashley-Cooper has ticked most boxes in a brilliant career, bagging a much-yearned for Super Rugby title little more than a year ago. But even an athlete of his calibre has to call it a day at some point and there is still business to be done.
“World Cups are very rare, once every four years, so for me competing at my third – this is definitely my last crack,” he said.
“That’s the way I have been looking at it ever since the World Cup squad was announced and was official. This is my last go, and like everyone else here, I have treated every game like it was a final.”
The test is how long can a group keep up with that intensity. There was Fiji, England, Wales to overcome just for the privilege of moving into sudden-death. The poker face – a famous Michael Cheikaism – is surely close to cracking.
“I’m not too sure how long we’ve been away,” Ashley-Cooper admits. “I know we spent two weeks together in Sydney and two weeks together at Notre Dame in Chicago, and however long we’ve been here … that is a long time, but it hasn’t felt long.
“And to me it’s a really good sign on where we’re at as a squad – motivational-wise and what we’re here for. We’re here to do a job. We’re serious about what we’re doing here, which is really good.”
The job became easier with the naming of Pocock and Folau on Friday. The individual doesn’t have much currency in this group, but there is no doubting the impact both players have in the side when they’re fit. If only because a collective confidence comes of their inclusion on the team sheet.
“The squad is healthy and available, that’s the boost,” Ashley-Cooper said. “And we have relied on that depth in a couple of games. We can get a lot of confidence out of that.”
The squad Cheika has selected to play Argentina – his starters and his finishers – is an even split of over-50s and under-50s in the Test cap department. Cheika asked Nathan Sharpe, a recent former Wallabies captain and veteran of 116 internationals, to present the jerseys to his players this week. Sharpe knows a thing or two about performing under pressure, but also about chances you never get again.
As does Drew Mitchell, who had played his last Test match until fresh eyes decided his experience – and left boot – were exactly what the Wallabies needed. Mitchell is lining up for his second World Cup semi-final and his third foray into sudden-death. He told his younger teammates to remember who they were should the noise, the theatre, the Pumas passion, start to crowd in at Twickenham on Sunday afternoon.
“The natural thing is to hear and to feel the bigger game aspect of it, but the most important thing we can pass on to any of those [younger] guys is you still have to go in there with the same belief, you’re still the same player as you were last week, you’re still capable of doing the same things,” Mitchell said.
“Ultimately it’s still a game and it’s just a great opportunity for us, so if we go out there and can really play our music, then we’ve got another great opportunity next week. That’s what we’re looking forward to.”