By Matt Majendie
For all his outbursts and tirades, you have to admire Australia coach Eddie Jones to a degree. He refuses to bat an eyelid at even the staunchest criticism.
And rarely had the criticism been stronger than over his decision to name three former rugby league stars to face arguably the most dangerous back-three combination in global rugby for Saturday's semi-final.
OZ BACK THREE IN ACTION
26/7/03: Lost to NZ 50-21 (Tries: Sailor, Rogers)
2/8/03: Beat SA 29-9
16/8/03: Lost to NZ 21-7
5/11/03: Beat Scotland 33-16
15/11/03: Beat NZ 22-10
Wins: Three; Tries: Three
But it paid off in dramatic style as the trio of Lote Tuqiri, Wendell Sailor and Mat Rogers overwhelmed the usually lethal Joe Rokocoko, Doug Howlett and Mils Muliaina.
But looking at the statistics - especially on the attack - the Wallaby runners had looked likely to be doing most of their running on the back foot for the All Blacks showdown.
As a combination, Tuqiri, Sailor and Rogers are still reasonably untested. The game at Sydney's Telstra Stadium was only the fifth time they had started a Test match together.
In the previous four, they had won two - against South Africa and Scotland - and lost two - against the All Blacks.
In addition, they have scored three tries between them - Rogers two and Sailor one - in that quartet of games, but conceded an average of 24 points a game - hardly a testament to the greatest defence in world rugby.
Admittedly New Zealand's trio of Rokocoko, Howlett and Muliaina have more experience as a unit, but their record in 10 starts together puts their opponents to shame.
The All Black speed machines have registered a try between them in every game they have started - crucially with the exception of Saturday's game - and a staggering 26 in total. Rokocoko boasts a remarkable 16 of that tally, to Howlett's 10.
But what became clear on Saturday was that Tuqiri, Sailor and Rogers ripped up the form book and produced their best attacking and defensive performance as a unit.
NZ BACK THREE IN ACTION
21/6/03: Beat Wales 55-3 (Tries: Rokocoko 2, Howlett)
28/6/03: Beat France 33-23 (Tries: Rokocoko 3)
19/7/03: Beat SA 52-16 (Tries: Rokocoko 2, Howlett 2)
26/7/03: Beat Aus 50-21 (Tries: Rokocoko 3, Howlett)
9/8/03: Beat SA 19-11
16/8/03: Beat Aus 21-17 (Tries: Howlett 2)
11/10/03: Beat Italy 70-7 (Tries: Howlett 2, Rokocoko 2)
2/11/03: Beat Wales 53-37 (Tries: Howlett 2, Rokocoko 2)
8/11/03: Beat SA 29-9
15/11/03: Lost Australia 22-10
Wins: Nine; Tries: 26
Their defence, the buzz word for Australia en route to winning the last World Cup when they conceded just one try, had occasionally gone awol in the tournament.
But they answered their critics in style.
Prior to the last World Cup, the Wallabies had been the first side to employ a full-time rugby league defence coach.
Four years on, the league influence was once again alive in defence as well as on the attack.
Tuqiri, Sailor and Rogers seemed to have a supreme awareness of each other throughout the game, darting to all avenues of the field to keep play alive and halt anything the opposition tried.
In stark contrast, the trio of Rokocoko, Howlett and Muliaina were simply diabolical.
The spark that had been the feature of their work over the last year fizzled out brutally, Rokocoko the worst offender as the weight of expectation took its toll.
While the critics were all happy to dig their claws in prior to the game, there was never any doubt from Jones himself.
Concerning his team selection, Jones had said: "We looked at all the different permutations, and certainly there were some guys who were close.
"We had a look at full-back. We have an outstanding player in Chris Latham but we decided Mat Rogers is the best option for this game.
"We also looked at the wing combination and in the end we feel that Lote starting and Wendell on the right wing and Joe Roff off the bench is best for this game."
As it later transpired, his optimism was justified.