Union

It’s been a roller-coaster Rugby World Cup preparation for the Wallabies – first came the sacking of star player Israel Folau, then a glorious victory against their nemesis, quickly followed by an ignominious defeat. So what are their prospects? By Brendan O’Keefe.

Wallabies look for touch ahead of World Cup

Wallabies captain David Pocock before his team’s match against Samoa last weekend.
Credit: AAP Image / David Gray

After Australia humbled New Zealand in the Bledisloe Cup opener in Perth last month, the sun shone brightly on a troubled team. The Wallabies had beaten the All Blacks 47-26, racking up the highest score by any nation in a Test against the world champions. Just six weeks before the Rugby World Cup in Japan, hope burst forth. Belief flowered. Praise flowed. Celebrations ensued.

It was a false dawn.

A week later, the Wallabies returned to their worst at the graveyard of Eden Park in Auckland: a passive defensive line was bent and punctured; one-out passes went to flat-footed forwards, who were swiftly monstered by their dominant opposites. Australia’s big men were absent at the breakdown, allowing the All Blacks to play to their own speed in attack and to disrupt and slow the visitors’ ballplay.

And at the end, the ignominy of zero points. To 36.

A victory last weekend against Samoa has somewhat righted the ship but there were worrying signs in the 34-15 win. The Australians in the second half appeared to be flustered and losing their rhythm in a period of brutal defence from the world’s 16th-ranked team. After leading 22-3 at half-time, the Wallabies conceded two tries and had the Samoans hot on their tails at 22-15 at the 60th minute. Two late tries sealed the game for the men in gold.

The night’s big positive was the return of flanker David Pocock, who has been troubled by a calf injury for much of this year. After the match, Pocock, one of the world’s best ball-pilferers, said it was “great to be back out there. [It was] physical [and] a really good contest.”

Coach Michael Cheika was a relieved man: “To get [Pocock] through that [game] time on the back of what’s happened so far this season is a big tick for us.”

And so to Japan, where the World Cup kicks off on Friday. Cheika says: “There’s a really good camaraderie within the team and we just can’t wait for it to start, which is something you may not have said six or seven months ago, but we’re just excited about getting it on.”

The coach is impressed with the level of competition for run-on spots. Before leaving for Japan, he said: “Everyone is looking to step it up and that’s what we want. It gives us good options and creates competition inside the squad.”

For the World Cup, which ends with a final in Yokohama on November 2, the Wallabies have drawn Pool D, along with Wales, which briefly became world No. 1 last month (a spot now held by Ireland); Georgia, 12th in the world rankings; Fiji, ninth and always a dangerous proposition as they can attack from broken play anywhere on the park; and 19th-placed Uruguay. Four pools of five nations will compete for the cup.

Australia is sixth in the world, up one place since last October. But the Wallabies have been mostly backsliding since a rankings high of second in May 2016.

Still, World Cup 2011 captain James Horwill is optimistic, even after the schooling the Wallabies copped at Eden Park. “The team has been building nicely and the game against the All Blacks in Perth was the crescendo of that,” he says. “The [next] weekend was a bit of a blip and there was always going to be a reaction from the All Blacks. I don’t think they should be too disheartened by that because there’s still a lot of positive signs. I think they’ll go very well and I’m looking forward to watching.”

World Cup 1991 champion David Campese is worried the Wallabies backline lacks finish. “The Bledisloe Cup demonstrated, especially the second game, that when the pressure’s on it seems we lack leadership out wide,” he tells The Saturday Paper. “Tevita Kuridrani at 13 and Adam Ashley-Cooper … my biggest concern with those two is they are not really offloaders; they are more ball carriers.

“Samu Kerevi is a ball carrier, not really an offloader or playmaker, and that’s pretty predictable.”

Campese says fullback Kurtley Beale is the Wallabies’ key weapon in attack. “He is unpredictable and an opposition can’t structure a defence around that.”

Cheika is on board with the unpredictability. After the 31-man World Cup squad was named last month, he said: “We’ll be a little bit unpredictable. It’s been our theme this year … if we don’t know what we’re doing, then no one will know what we’re doing.

“In rugby there’s a lot of ‘by the numbers’ strategy of ‘I’ll try and get here and I’ll know what’s happening next’. That can give you some great highs … it can give the odd low every now and then.”

Campese is disappointed that Brumbies fullback Tom Banks missed the cut: “He is another unpredictable player and a good finisher and we are going to need that.”

Cup-winning skipper Nick Farr-Jones is low-key on the Wallabies’ prospects. The former halfback, who lifted the Webb Ellis Cup in 1991, says consistency is key. “You’ve got to be consistent, which they’ve failed to display. Perth was a wonderful effort but I just don’t know how you get 47 points one week and zero points the next.”

Farr-Jones says that to give the World Cup a serious shake, “you’ve got to have a bunch of players who would put their hands up as an automatic selection in a world XV, and at the moment we’ve probably got no one”.

“Is that going to happen? I’m not sure, but I’m hopeful. It would require a massive change in a short period of time.”

The Wallabies’ preparations for the showpiece were clouded by the sacking of former star fullback Israel Folau. The devout Christian had posted on Instagram on April 4 last year that homosexuals would go to “hell” unless they “repent of their sins”.

Rugby Australia warned Folau the post breached his contract and had contravened RA’s inclusion policy. Then in April this year, after he had signed a new $4 million contract with RA, Folau posted his comment that hell awaits “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolaters”. RA tore up his contract on May 17.

The case was left unresolved after a hearing in the Federal Circuit Court last month. In a claim lodged with that court, Folau says the decision to sack him is unenforceable because it places an unreasonable limit on his ability to play. Chief Judge Will Alstergren called on both parties to settle their fight by mediation in mid-December. If that fails, the case will go to trial in February.

Campese is confident the Folau drama will fade into the background when the six-week tournament kicks off. “It’s a World Cup and they really won’t be worrying about stuff that’s off the field,” he says.

Cheika says the unfolding disaster has been a drain but that the squad’s tightness has prevailed. “This is the closest I’ve seen the team from a camaraderie point of view and to go through some of the things we’ve had to go through off the field, that tests you, and we’ve been able to come out [unscathed].”

So how far can the Wallabies go?

Farr-Jones tells The Saturday Paper Australians are traditionally good tournament performers. “When it gets into sudden-death knockout we can rise, but I would say this team would need a significant amount of luck,” he says. “I think we have a reasonable depth. If you played your first XV against your second XV, I think it would be quite competitive. When we won the World Cup in ’91, the first XV would’ve beaten the second XV by 20 points. What I’m saying is we could probably withstand a couple of injuries.”

Campese says the Wallabies’ destiny is in their hands: “They can go all the way if they want to. It’s really just about turning up and doing the simple things right. If you can do that then you are 95 per cent of the way there.”

One of those simple things? “It’s all about the ball: if you haven’t got it, you can’t win.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 14, 2019 as "Looking for touch". Subscribe here.

Brendan O’Keefe
has been a newspaper journalist for 33 years and retired from club rugby last year, at age 53.