Despite riding a wave of optimism into last week’s Rugby Championship opener, Australia were belted 47-29 by the All Blacks at Sydney’s Olympic Stadium, prompting newspaper editors on both sides of the Tasman Sea to write “New coach, same old Wallabies” in their headlines.
Leali’ifano, with only four test caps to his credit, was among a raft of inexperienced Wallabies facing the might of the All Blacks for the first time on Saturday. Three days later, he was still struggling to process what happened.
“We were right in that game for 50-odd minutes but it takes a complete 80-minute performance to beat the All Blacks,” the 25-year-old told Reuters in Melbourne, where the Wallabies have trained in preparation for Wellington’s winter chill.
“They really turned it on. It’s pretty hard to explain. Whether it’s going to be bad for us… It’s a massive learning (experience) for this group.
“We’re obviously a whole new group that are trying to learn how to play for each other, and building our culture. And I think there’s a bright future for us. We’ve just got to keep believing in it.”
Improving team culture has been a mantra coming out of the Wallabies camp in the wake of a string of embarrassing discipline lapses during the British and Irish Lions series in June and July.
McKenzie’s predecessor Robbie Deans was criticised roundly by local media for tolerating slack standards and indulging a number of repeat offenders in his squad.
Leali’ifano said none of the players were feeling comfortable about their positions under McKenzie, who upon his appointment declared that reputations counted for little in his squad.
“You’ve got to keep working hard to improve and he’s big on that,” Leali’ifano said.
“He’s big on us consistently performing well and if you’re not then you’re going to get punted. I guess that kind of pressure is on you and that’s what I enjoy.
“I enjoy that kind of pressure to improve and that trying to kind of find that consistency.
“The more you build a great culture, the more you play for each other and I think we’re doing a fantastic job but there’s still plenty to do.
“There’s a long season ahead and I think this group is going to be very tight and we’ve got a massive future ahead.”
Having had his long-awaited promotion into the Wallabies squad delayed by injuries last year, Leali’ifano is well-versed in the pitfalls of taking things for granted.
The New Zealand-born back had his test debut last less than a minute when he was knocked unconscious in the opening match of the British and Irish Lions series.
He has since packed a lot into his short Wallabies career, kicking the winning penalty goal in the second Lions test in Melbourne before tasting huge disappointment in the series decider, when Australia were smashed in Sydney.
Although Leali’ifano denied the All Blacks had given the Wallabies a reality check at the weekend, he suffered an unpleasant jolt in the first half when his clearing kick was charged down by flyhalf Aaron Cruden, who swooped on the loose ball and scored a try to put the visitors in front.
Despite that howler, Leali’ifano’s boot has been one of the few bright spots for the Wallabies, the versatile back slotting all 19 of his place kicks to date in tests.
The Wallabies have struggled to nail down a decent kicker for a number of years, with the role being raffled between flyhalf Quade Cooper and a succession of backs including James O’Connor, Berrick Barnes and Kurtley Beale.
Damien Hill, a travelling kicking consultant who works with Australia’s top-flight rugby league teams, had helped Leali’ifano put his best foot forward, driving four-five hours from his home base in the coastal city of Newcastle to Canberra to work with the Brumbies’ kickers.
“Working with him, he never changed my style. He just found something, an approach that I found worked for me and I just really trusted in that,” he added.
“All other kicking coaches that I’ve had have tried to change my style so he just looked at the way I kicked and found a way to make it work.
“All year it’s something that I’ve worked on but it’s never good to be happy you’re kicking well and you’re still losing. You want to be kicking well and the team’s winning.”
(Editing by John O’Brien)