SAINT-ETIENNE, France -- Rising prop Angus Bell has pointed to Australia's dogged 13-man defensive showing against Portugal as the standard for the team moving forward, saying the Wallabies need to become a team "that fights" if they are to climb their way back up from a record-low ranking of 10th.
Bell was one of the standout performers for Australia in their 34-14 win over Portugal in Saint-Etienne on Sunday night, leading from the front alongside man-of-the-match Rob Valetini who was back to his best after a quiet Rugby World Cup campaign.
The two men led the charge for Australia with ball-in-hand, taking on the lion's share of Australia's carries with 20 between them as the Wallabies used a one-man advantage to build a comfortable 24-7 lead after conceding the game's first try.
But it was when Australia were down to 13 men, following the yellow cards to Matt Faessler and Samu Kerevi, that the team really had to work hard. With big hits from Pone Fa'amausili and Valetini, and the tireless work rate of Tom Hooper who topped the tackle count with 20, the Wallabies ensured Portugal did not seriously threaten a miracle comeback - and further embarrassment for Australian rugby.
In the end, Australia's line did break, but only after Faessler had returned and the Wallabies answered straight back anyway with their fifth and final try soon after.
"We've got to turn into a team that fights," Bell said of the defensive commitment. "There's been moments this year where we haven't. I'm really proud of the boys. We really fought there.
"We lost a man, we had everything thrown at us and we came away with a result which was getting the ball back and exiting our 22. We're really proud of that, we fought really hard for about 15 minutes."
Critics will point to the fact that it was only Portugal, who are winless in France, as evidence the Wallabies shouldn't be getting too carried away with that defensive grit, but Os Lobos [the Wolves] still finished the match with 10 clean breaks, highlighting their attacking intent.
"To be honest, we train for that," Wallabies centre Lalakai Foketi added. "We drop down to 13 men, 12 men, but it's really different in a game scenario where it's live and it's a Test match. We just wanted to dig in for each other and we kind of had that 'no fear' mentality.
"We'll probably look back at the tape, not in the next couple of days but Thursday, and see how much the boys put in for each other because it was massive and, to be out there at that time and to be playing, it was it was special."
Fullback Andrew Kellaway was another player to come up with a key defensive play, albeit when Australia had 15 men on the field, but the try-saving tackle right on halftime ensured Australia went to the break with a commanding 17-point lead.
But it was Bell and Valetini who deserved much of the praise for Australia's closing pool victory, and both men will be Wallabies cornerstones for Jones -- or the Wallabies' next coach if rumours he is preparing to flee for Japan are proven correct -- from next year and beyond.
At only 22, with 28 Tests now behind him, Bell has the all-round game to be a world-class loosehead prop and a future Wallabies captain to boot. With props generally not seen to have hit their peak until the age of 30, on the evidence of Sunday night's performance Bell could grow into something truly special in the coming years.
"Every game I just try and put my best foot forward," Bell said. "My job as a prop is to lock down the set-piece and be good around the field and add value to the team.
"I feel like I can add a point of difference as well. I'm just happy to do my job and I'm happy to get the win as a team."
While the plan to "work backwards" from the 2027 World Cup -- and Jones' decision to usher in a youth policy by casting aside Quade Cooper, Michael Hooper and Bernard Foley -- drew widespread criticism both before and during the Wallabies' travails in France, Bell's experiences in France will be vital in his development moving forward.
And the Waratahs prop is already looking to the future, having earlier this year signed a long-term deal with Rugby Australia that will keep him on home soil through to the next global showpiece.
"Yeah, 100% it's exciting times; obviously we've got a few young blokes in the team," Bell said of the 2027 tournament, which Australia will host.
"And I'll be 26 when that World Cup comes around, and hopefully I'm still running around, but obviously, you've got to take a short approach to everything. We're looking forward to next week and potentially being in the quarterfinals.
"Obviously, there's a lot to come before then, but it's exciting times, but we still have a job to do."
Wallabies assistant coach Dan Palmer, who will head to Leicester to join former Brumbies boss Dan McKellar after the tournament, agreed the lessons of a tough few weeks would be invaluable for Bell and many of Australia's other young forwards.
"They'll get a lot out of it. A lot of what you learn in set-piece comes from experience and they've had some pretty good experiences here in terms of playing against some tough packs," Palmer said.
"Combination is also a big thing so we've brought some of the younger guys together who haven't necessarily played much together before so that will be important for them. Time in the seat, experience against tough opposition is always going to be beneficial especially for tight forwards."
Meanwhile, Rugby Australia chief executive Phil Waugh has seemingly closed the door on the further pursuit of NRL recruits, breaking ranks with chairman Hamish McLennan.
News that RA had been talking with Sydney Roosters, NSW and Australia back-rower Angus Crichton broke last week, just days after Australia's crushing 40-6 loss to Wales, prompting a wave of objection across the Australian rugby community.
But reports on Monday said Crichton's deal had been pulled by RA and Waugh said the Wallabies needed to look from within and ensure those players that had taken their first steps into Test rugby in 2023 were prioritized - particularly ahead of the British & Irish Lions Tour in 2025.
"I don't think so," Waugh said of any further raids on the NRL. "I think that what we need to do is for those players that have just entered their international career; how do we actually get more and more competitive games? One of the challenges we have in Super Rugby Pacific is that you're probably playing the same style of rugby against New Zealand and Australian teams.
"What we really missed I think is that variation which South Africa [brought] and what northern hemisphere teams bring. So I think there's going to be a piece around how do we get people creative in creating opportunities to play against different styles of teams. British & Irish Lions is going to be a huge challenge when you look at the growth of the north over the last period of time."