Stephen Larkham (Gallo Images)
Teddington - 2015 World Cup finalists Australia have made the same amount of progress in one year as their predecessors did in two to win the 1999 tournament, Stephen Larkham said Tuesday.
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The 41-year-old former fly-half, one of the heroes of the 1999 victory, said head coach Michael Cheika had worked wonders since being appointed last October to get Australia 80 minutes away from a historic third title.
The only minor problem is that defending champions New Zealand stand in their way.
However, Larkham, since February the team's backs and attack coach, believes the team are more than capable of beating their arch-rivals.
"I think this journey is fairly similar," said Larkham, who has produced a vibrant backline that has contributed the majority of the side's 26 tries thus far.
He was also a member of the 2003 squad that lost in the World Cup final on home soil to a drop goal by England great Jonny Wilkinson in the last seconds of extra-time.
Since Cheika's appointment, "we've had an accelerated little growth together, whereas in 1999 and 2003 we had two years of preparation," he said.
"But I'd say these boys are at the stage we were at in particularly 1999 and 2003."
Speaking at the team's hotel in the leafy London suburb of Teddington, he added with a broad grin on his face: "Of course, this present side are the best of the three."
Larkham, whose long-range drop goal to win the 1999 semi-final against then defending champions South Africa was even more remarkable given he admitted afterwards his eyesight was so weak he couldn't see the goalposts properly, said even from afar he could tell Cheika had begun to weave some magic on their tour of the Northern Hemisphere last November.
"I was very proud of the way the boys played on tour last year," said Larkham, who resolved his eyesight problem by undergoing laser surgery.
"I thought it was a very entertaining style of play and they started to combine and I hadn't seen that in previous years. So I started to find a little bit of pride back in that Australian jersey.
"I think the biggest thing we've brought over this last 12 months is a little bit of structure to the game.
"From all reports, the game plans, the attacking style and defensive style would change from week to week. I think that since 'Cheik' came on board, there's been a really clear direction."
Larkham, who retired from Test rugby after the 2007 World Cup with 102 caps, said if the Wallabies side replicated their performance from the 29-15 win over Argentina in the semi-finals, then they would be on the right track against the All Blacks.
"We have had our highs and our lows in terms of defence and attack," said Larkham, whose fellow 1999 World Cup winner Nathan Grey is the defence coach.
"What has pleased me is the manner in which the guys succeeded in mixing both up last weekend.
"I don't want to focus just on my speciality but to assure myself that the overall performance of the team will be good.
"And I thought it was good. There were very long sequences of them (the Wallabies) with the ball in hand, one of four minutes, 30 seconds, which is the longest since I have been involved.
"The guys managed that really well."
Larkham, though, couldn't play it straight throughout -- despite centre Matt Giteau remarking last week that he had tried two jokes, and neither were funny.
He was asked whether he had been responsible for flyhalf Bernard Foley's outrageous but spectacular missed pass out to wing Adam Ashley-Cooper for the Wallabies' first try against the Pumas.
"All the tries this year have come from my hard work," Larkham said, smiling.
"No, it's 100 percent Bernard (Foley). We've practised that move for a number of weeks now and we just took the right option on the weekend."