Rugby World Cup: Wallabies go walkabout to hone winning ways

THE MAIN CONTENDERS England prepared for unlikely gamble, France primed to gambol while Australia calculate odds and Ireland play wild card
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The Independent Online
THE AGE of the Wallaby? It has a certain ring to it, that's for sure. By the time the Olympic torch blows itself out in Sydney next summer, the Australians could possess a global title for every cork dangling from their collective bush hat. Steve Waugh's street fighters fell back on the blood-and-guts element in their national sporting pysche to wrap up the Cricket World Cup in June and it will be no particular surprise if John Eales and his union clansmen bring precisely the same forces to bear on the rugby version over the next five weeks.

Open a Wallaby dictionary at the first page and you will find the following words: aggression, application, assurance, audacity. Attention, too, as in attention to detail. Nothing has been left to chance by Rod Macqueen and his close-knit team of back-room operatives. The Wallabies have been manacled together for months now, up there in a middle-of-nowhere Queensland resort called Caloundra. They have been cooking their own food, washing their own jockstraps, making their own way to training on creaking old mountain bikes and, in their quieter moments, plotting and planning and concocting ways of surviving the celtic assault about to be unleashed by Ireland and Wales.

No one seriously doubts that Australia possess the weaponry to win themselves a second world championship. Their scrummage is no better than serviceable and their loose forward combination cannot quite match the bristling muscularity of the New Zealanders, the big-hit brawn of the Springboks or the creative fertility of the English, but they are beyond compare in every other department. The Eales factor is immense, while George Gregan and Steve Larkham are, assuming full fitness for the latter, the most potent half-back combination in the tournament. As for the back-line, well they leave the rest in the starting blocks.

From 15 down to 11 they can field Matthew Burke, Ben Tune, Daniel Herbert, Tim Horan and Joe Roff - a World Cup-winning quintet if ever there was one. One or two injuries along the way? As Shane Warne likes to say: "It's no ice, mate." Macqueen can whistle up Nathan Gray, Jason Little and Chris Latham, class acts to a man. No others are so handsomely equipped, either on the field or on the bench. The All Blacks can boast a wonderful back three, with or without Jolly Jonah on the left wing, but they do not stack up nearly as well in midfield.

The Wallabies alone know what it is to win a World Cup on enemy soil; indeed, their tournament record can reasonably be lauded as the most impressive of any side on the planet. Good winners in 1991, they were denied their presumed place in the 1987 final by a last-minute Serge Blanco try in Brisbane and missed a third semi-final place in 1995 only as a result of Rob Andrew's drop goal in Cape Town, the most celebrated in English rugby history.

In short, they are an exceptionally capable tournament side, well versed in the rigours of a five-week campaign. Their draw might have been kinder - Ireland in Dublin means bruises on bruises, and a probable quarter-final with Wales at the new Cardiff hot spot will be a profound test of mental and emotional strength, as well as one of rugby ability and tactical awareness - but, by and large, the Wallabies do not lose to the celtic hordes. Besides, failure would mean a public roasting back home from the increasingly acerbic David Campese. There are few fates worse than death, but the thought of Campo in full flow for the next four years is more than flesh and blood can stand. Even Australian flesh and blood.

AUSTRALIA

Coach: Rod Macqueen

Captain: John Eales

World Cup record: 1987 - 4th; 1991 - Champions; 1995 - Quarter-finalists

How they qualified: Winners of Pacific zone

Registered adult players: 33,950

Key player

JOHN EALES

(Second row)

Pound for pound the Australian captain is the world's best player: a genuinely great line-out forward, a punishing scrummager, a runner and handler of outstanding quality, a wise tactician, a resourceful leader and an increasingly confident goal-kicker of Test calibre.

SQUAD

Matt Burke (New South Wales)

Chris Latham (Queensland)

Jason Little (New South Wales)

Joe Roff (Australian Capital Territories)

Ben Tune (Queensland)

Nathan Grey (New South Wales)

Daniel Herbert (Queensland)

Tim Horan (Queensland)

Scott Staniforth (New South Wales)

Stephen Larkham (ACT)

Rod Kafer (New South Wales)

George Gregan (ACT)

Chris Whitaker (New South Wales)

Andrew Blades (New South Wales)

Dan Crowley (Queensland)

Richard Harry (New South Wales)

Patricio Noriega (ACT)

Phil Kearns (New South Wales)

Jeremy Paul (ACT)

Michael Foley (Queensland)

Mark Connors (Queensland)

John Eales (Queensland, capt)

David Giffin (ACT)

Jim Williams (ACT)

Matt Cockbain (Queensland)

Owen Finegan (ACT)

Brett Robinson (ACT)

David Wilson (Queensland)

Toutai Kefu (Queensland)

Tiaan Strauss (New South Wales)

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