Next up in our ‘State of the Nation’ series is Australia. They’re a team back on the up following the lows of 2013. They’re also current holders of the Rugby Championship trophy. So they’re sure not to exit at the pool stages…aren’t they?
In September 2013, Red Rugby published an article titled ‘What’s gone wrong with the Wallabies?’. Back then, the men in green and gold had come off the back of a series defeat to the British and Irish Lions and a record loss at home to the Springboks. Aussie papers were deriding the team as a ‘spectator’ in test rugby. The Wallabies appeared to be a team in swift decline.
Looking back at that post, as we have done today, it seems silly now that we (and others) were contemplating Australian rugby union drifting from the top table of the international game. This year they have reclaimed the Rugby Championship and, in doing so, beaten the All Blacks, which is a massive psychological fillip in World Cup year. This comes just twelve months after the Warratahs were crowned Super Rugby champions led by the exemplary Michael Hooper. Australia have gone from likely Pool A casualties to potential finalists in the space of two years. The team that always seem to time their run to the World Cup would appear to have done it again.
But how? What explains this turnaround?
Back in 2013 we argued that the Wallabies needed a bigger pack while addressing the lack of quality players at their disposal. They’ve done both. Following the unsuccessful spells of Robbie Deans and Ewen McKenzie, former Leinster coach Michael Cheika has come in and made some crucial changes both to the squad and selection policy. Players such as the gigantic Will Skelton now appear in the front eight, while the decision to reverse the rule which prevented those playing abroad from representing the national team has resulted in the influx of the ‘prodigal sons’: all of them brimming with quality (see Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell). The return of David Pocock from long term injury has also been hugely important. His partnership with Hooper in the back-row is one that any team in world rugby would dread to face. They will be difficult to beat.
Given this, is it still possible for the Aussies to lose both to England and Wales and suffer an early exit for the first time in their history? The answer is yes. It’s less likely but still possible. It’s always going to be a possibilty when three of the top five sides in the world are in the same pool (the ridiculousness of which wasn’t lost on Wallaby legend David Campese recently).
So let’s look at those crucial matches for Cheika’s men. First up is the game against England. The odds (and recent history) are in English favour here. Stuart Lancaster’s men have proven to be a difficult team to beat at home while the Wallabies, for all their recent victories, are a side that don’t ‘travel well’ (see their thrashing at the hands of the All Blacks one week after their Rugby Championship triumph). In fact, it’s the Aussie form away from home that will give England and Wales the greatest cheer. Their success this year has been based on home wins (and even then they left it till the last minute against South Africa). However, the Aussies will look to the 1991 World Cup final for inspiration, when Campo and Co dashed English dreams.
And then there’s the Wales game. Ah, Wales. You can’t help but feel that for Gatland’s Wales against Australia it’s a case of ‘you should have made hay while the sun shone’. They haven’t beaten the Wallabies since 2008 and, since then, have suffered a string of near misses: some of them calamitous, all of them heart-breaking. Given the standard of the 2013 vintage of Wallabies, Wales should’ve turned them over at least once. But they didn’t. Have they now missed the boat given the resurgence of Australia and their own injury crises? You would suspect so. But the game on October 10th will be the most important contest between the two since the Bronze Final of 2011. It’s a one-off game. It’ll be this match that decides who progresses to the quarters.
If Australia do make it through, we suspect it will be as group runners up. If that happens, South Africa will likely await. This will be the true test of how far the Wallabies have bounced back. A neutral ground. A familiar foe. If they turn the Springboks over, it’ll make that likely semi-final confrontation with New Zealand very interesting.
The question concerning Australia this World Cup is how far have they come since the doldrums of 2013? The answer to that question will determine how far they go in 2015.