Steve Hansen praises progress in Aussie game

ON THE RISE: All Black coach Steve Hansen expects the Wallabies to be a force in the Rugby Championship.
ON THE RISE: All Black coach Steve Hansen expects the Wallabies to be a force in the Rugby Championship.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen believes Australia rugby culture is on an upward curve and is wary of the Wallabies ahead of the Rugby Championship.

"I think they're making really good progress. They've lost [hooker] Stephen Moore for the season which is a big loss for them as their captain, but they're working hard on their culture and that seems to be benefiting them," Hansen said.

The All Blacks would begin their Championship campaign against the Wallabies in Sydney on August 16. A victory for the All Blacks would be a world record 17 test wins in a row.

But before they play the Sydney test, many of the players on both sides would be involved in the Super Rugby playoffs.

What Hansen would see in the coming weeks was just how Australia's top players measured up against New Zealand's when the intensity and pressure was ramped up a notch from the regular season.

First up, the Chiefs were tonight playing a Brumbies side packed with current Wallabies, including five of the squad that beat France 39-13 in the last of the June test matches.

The winner of that match would likely play the table-topping Waratahs in Sydney, with another big chunk of McKenzie's test players, and it was a safe bet Hansen and his All Blacks coaching staff would have their MySky set in advance.

"They have one or two exceptional players," Hansen said.

"[Israel] Folau is proving a try-scoring machine and [Bernard] Foley of the Waratahs has been playing particularly well. But it's a matter of who Ewen [McKenzie] selects and we won't see that until the week of the test."

An increasing feature of Australian rugby was the number of players of Pacific Island descent sprinkled through their Super Rugby sides with the likes of Folau and giant lock Will Skelton adding an X-factor that's long benefitted All Blacks sides.

Equally there has been the growing influence of New Zealand born players with a total of 25 spread through the four Australian squads this season.

There were six in the Brumbies, Force and Rebels, five in the Reds, and three in the Waratahs.

Not all of those players learned their rugby in New Zealand and it was difficult to gauge their effect, but the transfer of knowledge and talent across the Tasman had certainly not been a negative.

Former All Blacks No 8 Murray Mexted didn't see much between any of the six sides in the Super Rugby playoffs, but he believed the Waratahs have undergone a major shift in attitude under coach Michael Cheika.

"They have always had this superior than thou attitude to football in Australia because something like 80 per cent of the players come from New South Wales," Mexted said.

"It's similar to how the English feel about their rugby. It's their right to win, the media expect them to win and talk them up all the time so they go on the field thinking they are greater than they are.

"Now all of a sudden the cool kids have realised they have to do more than be the cool kids if they want to win in the hardest competition in the world. The Waratahs have grown under Michael Cheika in terms of a hard-nosed attitude."

Mexted could see Australia's top Super sides improving further in coming years due to the introduction of a domestic competition in the mould of New Zealand's ITM Cup.

"It will definitely transfer to the Rugby Championship. They desperately need that additional layer that we have had the luxury of all these years."

As Super Rugby draws to its exciting conclusion, there are signs Australian rugby has been the big mover following a season of unpredictable results.

The Dominion Post