Larkham influence pervading Wallabies backline at World Cup
28 Oct 2015 - 17:27
TEDDINGTON, England: There was something very familiar about the way Bernard Foley drew in Argentina's defense and floated a perfectly weighted miss-pass to Adam Ashley-Cooper for Australia's second try in the Rugby World Cup semifinal at the weekend.
The coolness and excellence in execution felt so natural that it revived memories of another player to have worn the No. 10 jersey for the Wallabies.
The influence of Stephen Larkham, a veteran of 102 tests and one of greatest players to wear the gold jersey, is being keenly felt not just by Foley but the whole of Australia's backline during this World Cup in Britain.
Larkham — the head coach of the Brumbies in Super Rugby — was brought in as an assistant to Wallabies coach Michael Cheika for the tournament and it has proved a masterstroke, adding creativity and a voice of experience to oversee a back division brimming with quality but perhaps needing some direction.
Foley idolized Larkham as a youngster and is thrilled to be working alongside him.
"He's got a really smart rugby mind and he looks at it from a really creative angle," says Foley, describing Larkham as a coach when he could so easily have been describing him as a player.
Larkham was the slickest and most unflustered flyhalf around during his days with the Wallabies from 1996 to 2007. So stealthy was Larkham on the field that he was given the nickname "Bernie," because he was as quiet as the dead character in the movie, "Weekend at Bernie's."
Things are a bit different now.
"He used to be very quiet as a player but as a coach he speaks a lot," says Australia inside center Matt Giteau, still learning at the age of 33. "He gets his messages across well, and the way he dissects teams is a real pleasure to watch."
Larkham has experience of playing in two Rugby World Cups, winning it with the Wallabies in 1999 and reaching the final in 2003 in a side that lost to England. But while he is happy to pass on his knowledge, he doesn't think his reflections from the World Cups he played are relevant to the current team.
"I haven't even tried to offer them anything," Larkham says. "The game has moved on from that time and these players have been on their own journey."
The two halfbacks are good case studies in that journey.
Will Genia was widely regarded as the world's best scrumhalf at the last World Cup, but injury and poor form meant he wasn't even sure of a place in the squad for this tournament.
Foley, meanwhile, was one of three options at flyhalf for Australia — along with Quade Cooper and Matt Toomua — but has quickly established himself as No. 1, mostly thanks to his two-try display against England in the pool stage.
Under the supervision of Larkham, Genia and Foley are gelling as a pair and drawing on his knowledge.
"We want to play a brand that's exciting (so that) Australians back home are proud of us and that we're entertaining," Foley says. "To that extent, Stephen's been really good.
"His calmness and how efficient he wants to play test-match rugby is what's going to help us at this later stage of this tournament."
Typically, Larkham understates his own importance.
"Obviously, all the tries we've scored this year have come from my hard work," he says, jokingly. "When you talk about the amount of work you do with the backline, or skill development, in competition you can't get a lot done. You have to make sure the guys are prepped, and ready to play.
"My work really is done at the beginning of the week."
But nine tries in two games in the knockout stage suggests Larkham has got the Wallabies' backline purring.
He was an inspiration behind one Australian World Cup-winning team and he could be again 16 years later, this time from the training field.