Will it be second time lucky for Wallabies coach Michael Cheika at the World Cup? (Reuters: Toby Melville)
The AFL and NRL finals are dominating the attention of Australia’s sporting public at the moment, so you can be forgiven for only just now realising the men’s Rugby World Cup kicks off in Japan this evening.
How will the Wallabies fare? Who is favourite to win? What about an underdog? And who could be the star of the show?
Read on, as we preview what may happen between now and the final in Yokohama on November 2 when the Webb Ellis Cup is lifted once more.
Wallabies need to front up physically
Coming off a 2018 season in which they won only four of 13 Tests and with the Israel Folau saga still fresh in the mind, the Wallabies’ World Cup campaign may appear to have already been derailed before the squad had set foot on Japanese soil.
But a resounding 47-26 win over the All Blacks in Perth last month during the abridged Rugby Championship has given Wallabies supporters a degree of hope about their World Cup chances, although this should have more to do with the nature of their performance than the margin on the scoreboard.
The Wallabies showed how to beat any international side — not just New Zealand — by getting in the face of their opponents with aggression on both the defensive and attacking sides of the ball.
The fact the All Blacks were reduced to 14 players in Perth must be acknowledged, and the two-time defending World Cup champions did extract revenge the following week with a 36-0 Bledisloe Cup thumping of the Wallabies in Auckland.
Wallabies’ pool matches
|vs Fiji||Sapporo||September 21|
|vs Wales||Tokyo||September 29|
|vs Uruguay||Oita||October 5|
|vs Georgia||Shizuoka||October 11|
The Wallabies scored victories over the All Blacks in domestic Tests in the lead-up to the 2007, 2011 and 2015 World Cups yet came up empty handed when the Webb Ellis Cup was up for grabs. But the self-belief the Wallabies would have gained from how they played in Perth will be pivotal should they reach the knock-out stages — as expected — in Japan.
In terms of personnel, coach Michael Cheika has the back row depth he has so desperately wanted, giving him the option of adopting a ‘horses for courses’ approach.
Cheika can use the dual openside flanker model he has previously favoured for his back row, with captain Michael Hooper and David Pocock on deck, while he has a destructive ball runner available in number eight Isi Naisarani and a line-out target in Lukhan Salakaia-Loto to play blindside flanker.
Folau’s absence has been negated to some extent by Kurtley Beale smoothly slotting in at full-back, a position considered to be his best, and the return of Australian rugby’s prodigal son James O’Connor has provided another midfield choice for the Wallabies.
The Wallabies begin the group stage against Fiji in Sapporo on Saturday before facing Wales, Uruguay and Georgia, with the clash against the Welsh set to decide who tops pool D and avoids the likely opponent of England in the quarter-finals.
How far can the Wallabies go? Making the 2015 World Cup final illustrated Cheika knows how to get the most out of his players, but a similar journey to the tournament decider this time around will depend on what Wallabies team — in terms of attitude — shows up in the knock-out stages.
A semi-final appearance would seem to be an on-par result for the Wallabies, however a deep run at the tournament should not be mistaken for being a sign that rugby union is in rude health in Australia, as the sport is struggling on several levels domestically.
England or All Blacks – who are favourites?
If you were to believe that the official World Rugby rankings dictate who is favourite to win in Japan, then the number one-ranked Ireland would be the team to beat but while the Irish are among the heavyweights, it is England and the All Blacks who should be topping the betting markets.
World Cup winners
England’s key weapon in Japan will not be taking the field; instead, Eddie Jones will be sitting in the grandstand as he looks to add a World Cup crown as head coach to his enviable track record at rugby union’s global showpiece.
He took a Wallabies team on the slide to extra time in the 2003 World Cup final, worked as a consultant with South Africa when it won four years later, before orchestrating the greatest upset in the tournament’s history when he guided Japan to a stunning pool-match victory over the Springboks in 2015.
Jones has had almost four years to mould his squad and even though there have been hiccups (such as finishing fifth in the 2018 Six Nations) there is ample evidence to suggest he has his troops peaking, as the Irish found out when they were hammered 57-15 at Twickenham last month.
A glowing endorsement of England’s chances does not mean the All Blacks are being forgotten in their quest to win a third consecutive World Cup and fourth overall.
Their form during the Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup was not convincing, however coach Steve Hansen’s squad has immense depth and several seasoned campaigners, such as captain Kieran Read, who know what it takes to win the tournament.
The All Blacks are chasing a third-straight World Cup triumph in Japan. (Reuters: Henry Browne)
The All Blacks edged out England 16-15 when they last met at Twickenham in November but almost 12 months later — at least to this observer — it is the English who have their noses just in front heading into the World Cup.
As always, a team to keep an eye on will be two-time champions South Africa, who drew 16-16 with the All Blacks in Wellington in July. The two nations meet again in a blockbuster Pool B opener in Yokohama on Saturday, with the result to have a significant bearing on how they both negotiate the knock-out rounds.
Watch out for Georgia and Gorgodzilla
The sporting public loves an underdog and while it is difficult to see an upset similar to Japan’s defeat of the Springboks four years ago, a team that could capture the public’s imagination in the coming weeks is one of the Wallabies’ pool rivals, Georgia.
The Lelos, as Georgia’s national rugby union team is nicknamed, have come a long way since their World Cup debut in 2003 when they were thrashed 84-6 by England in Perth and they have established themselves as one of the up-and-coming nations in international rugby.
They collected two wins in the pool stage at the last World Cup in England, helping to consolidate rugby union as one of the most popular and fast-growing sports in the former Soviet Union state and adding to calls for their inclusion in an expanded Six Nations tournament.
Among the Georgian squad is one of rugby’s most intriguing personalities Mamuka Gorgodze, or Gorgodzilla as the back rower and lock is widely known.
Standing at almost 200 centimetres tall and weighing close to 120 kilograms, the physically imposing Gorgodze has come out of international retirement to answer the call for Georgia in what will be his fourth World Cup campaign.
The 35-year-old will provide a sizeable dose of experience for the 12th-ranked Georgia, who relies heavily on its forward pack, with its scrum a key strength of its game.
Cometh the hour, cometh Itoje
Rugby union lacks a genuine global sporting star in both the men’s and women’s ranks, a player who can attract international attention and transcend the game in the same way the late Jonah Lomu did following his exploits at the 1995 World Cup in South Africa.
England lock Maro Itoje could become that player in the coming weeks in Japan, having burst onto the Test scene as a 21-year-old in 2016 and impressing ever since as a vital cog in Jones’s machine.
Maro Itoje has been a star on the rise since making his Test debut in 2016. (Reuters: Andrew Boyers)
He combines an immense skill set with athleticism and a solid rugby IQ, as well as the capacity to thrive in the most intense environments as he illustrated in the British and Irish Lions’ epic drawn Test series against the All Blacks in 2017.
Highly intelligent, Itoje — tipped as a future England captain — has garnered attention away from the playing pitch because of his deep interest in politics and social justice issues, while he has shown an enjoyment for writing poetry.
He can expect to become a fan favourite at the World Cup, especially after he showed his deep respect for the host nation by beginning a speech in Japanese at an official England function in Miyazaki earlier this week.