Wallaroos tap into professional mindset for World Cup clash with England

It moves like a Roman phalanx. A cohesive mass of humanity, relentlessly drilled, ruthless in its ambitions, clinical in its executions. In a different time and place, the Red Roses pack might have conquered the Mediterranean.

“They’re formidable, that’s for sure,” says Michaela Leonard, the Australian lock assuming the role of a Gallic warrior this weekend as her Wallaroos face up to the toughest challenge in world rugby. “We’re ready for it. We’re confident. We back ourselves. We want to prove to ourselves that we can do it.”

In their 75-0 demolition of South Africa, England’s forwards scored a dozen tries. There were hat-tricks for second rower Rosie Galligan and hooker Connie Powell. Sadia Kabeya and Poppy Cleall bagged two each with Shaunagh Brown crashing over as well. What’s frightening, as far as Australia are concerned, is that none of them are guaranteed starters for the quarter-final clash in Auckland.

“Because they’ve got so much depth, you have to plan for so many scenarios,” Leonard says. “I help call the line-outs and I have to pay attention to a number of different possible combinations. You don’t know who you’ll be up against or who they’ll put up in the air. That’s why we’re choosing to focus on our own game. If we spend too much time worrying about them we’ll lose sight of what we can do.”

That’s a romantic notion but the Wallaroos will be wise to be cautious. England were disjointed with ball in hand against South Africa but their set piece was brutally effective. The scrum routinely won penalties in both red zones. The line-out operated at 88%. The maul, the Roses’ most potent weapon, contributed six tries to the cause.

Australia will need to find a way of halting the tide but will have to do so within the laws of the game. Discipline has been a concern and they’ve collected cards in each of their group games for a tally of four yellows and a red. Ten minutes with a numerical disadvantage against England could prove fatal which places extra pressure on the way they defend their line.

“You never try to bring down a maul illegally or collapse the scrum, but at the same time you’re doing everything you can to stop them getting over,” says tight head prop, Bridie O’Gorman. “You’re desperate and in those moments you can do something that you shouldn’t. We’ve spoken about the aggression that we need to bring. We have to match them up front. It’s a mindset thing.”

The South African men’s hooker, Bongi Mnonambi, has said that he envisages his wife and children behind him whenever he’s up against a pack on the march, reimagining his opposition as home invaders. This helps him dig deep into his psyche to ignite his primal instincts. Leonard doesn’t have any children, but she likes the strategy involving visualisation. “Maybe I’ll think of my dog on Sunday,” she says. “Maybe that will give me a boost.”

She’ll need it. Australia’s squad, composed of teachers, personal trainers and a labourer, is up against a fully professional outfit that enjoys the advantages of adequate rest and recovery time. Conversely, when they’re not in camp or on tour with their country, O’Gorman works as a civil engineer and Leonard practices as a physiotherapist. Both state their desire for change in the women’s game and point out the obvious impact of such a disparity.

But that is no excuse, at least not for Scott Fava. The former five-Test Wallaby now serves as the Wallaroos’ defence coach and argues that his charges are amateur in name only.

“We’ve all been together for the last five weeks, we’ve done nothing else but gear up for this moment and prepare ourselves for it,” Fava says. “If this was a one-off Test, then sure. We’d be coming in cold. Back in August we had a two-month break and we got whacked 52-5 by New Zealand in Christchurch. We were effectively club players coming into a professional game.

“But they are professionals now. They’re training like professionals and have the mindset of professionals. We’re focussed on bringing the physicality against England because we know we can. We’ve proved that by beating two northern hemisphere teams in the competition already.”

Narrow wins over Scotland and Wales has helped catapult Australia to sixth on World Rugby’s rankings. It is also the first time since July 2019 that they’ve won back-to-back Tests. According to Leonard, this change in fortune is a consequence of increased contact time.

“It’s so important that you understand each others’ games when you’re working together as a pack,” she says. “You start to know what someone is going to do before they do it. If they’re going to break around the fringe or if they need you to support them in the maul or on the floor. We’re starting to click.”

Now is the acid test. Rugby Australia has set themselves a three-year target to offer professional contracts for its players. A win on Sunday might hasten that deadline.