RWC Special: Wallabies bemused by new role of wannabes

Australians struggle with alien concept of not being favourites
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The Independent Online

For a nation that is usually prepared to bet on a couple of flies climbing up a wall, Australians have been surprisingly tardy about staking Sheila's Mum's legacy on the progress of the Wallabies at this forthcoming World Cup.

But then, perhaps it's time for the much teased Poms, perennial failures at any games played by Australians, to strike back. Certainly the feeling Down Under appears to be that Eddie Jones's men aren't worth the investment of so much as the cost of a tinny. The silence has been deafening concerning the prospects of the Aussies retaining their World champions' crown come the final in a few weeks' time.

But why this staring morosely into long cold glasses of beer in the bars of Brisbane and Sydney ? The fact is, many people think Jones has made a muck of the Wallabies' preparations this time.

World Cup winners usually look an assured bunch, primed and ready for the fray, purposeful and settled in position, long before the actual tournament begins. Like England and New Zealand this time. New Zealand in 1987 had David Kirk and Grant Fox at half-back, the magnificently muscular John Kirwan on the wing and physical presence everywhere. The Wallaby sides of 1991 and 1999 were similar; rich in quality personnel and confident about the task before them.

You couldn't say that about this Australian vintage. Take your pick from a caravan full of full-backs and wings; the midfield looks a mess, is Stephen Larkham fit or not at outside-half? Then there's George Gregan, a delightful, determined young man at scrum-half who suddenly took over the captaincy and ran into the Hurricane Sheila of all criticisms.

Up front this time, there's no John Eales, David Wilson, Michael Foley, Toutai Kefu ... solid citizens on whom Australian rugby built a dynasty. The current lot look less appealing.

All of which, coming from the pen of a Pom, probably makes one thing a raging certainty. The Australians will walk away with this year's rugby World Cup in their own backyard and us doubters will straggle home, tails between legs.

Yet not even many Australians think that. Take the Wallabies' magnificent 1984 Grand Slam captain Andrew Slack, until recently coach of Queensland but now back in the media world where he feels happier. Not much money going on the Aussies then, 'Slackie'?

"The complete opposite would be a fair call, mate. Most people have been disappointed with their performances. They're not convinced Jones has given certain players much of a chance to prove anything. We struggle in midfield where we haven't got anything settled. They've all missed so many games, Larkham, [Joe] Roff, [Mathew] Burke, [Stirling] Mortlock etc. Roff's a good player but no-one is sure whether he's a full-back or a wing. And it's a bit late in the piece to be trying to find out now."

Much hope is being pinned on Mortlock's often damaged shoulders. "If he plays as well as he can he will make a hell of a difference" is Slack's opinion. "But we have too many people behind the scrum at the moment whom you'd call setter-uppers. There isn't a Brian O'Driscoll who can do everything; set it up, tackle but also make the break. Our guys are good links but not necessarily great game changers. I don't see any [David] Campeses, [Tim] Horans or [Jason] Littles, players able to crack a defence in a one-on-one situation."

Up front, the Australian pack has at times looked like a lot of men loitering without intent. Slack is surprised veteran flanker Owen Finnegan wasn't included once Kefu was ruled out through injury. "[Phil] Waugh and [George] Smith are very good footballers but neither is a [Toutai] Kefu or [Lawrence] Dallaglio. And I'd have included Nathan Sharpe because he's our best tight running forward, in my book."

Perhaps Australia's greatest mate, the sunshine, will be the key factor in it all. Slack suggests visiting teams are going to find life hard in the sort of temperatures they will encounter in many of the venues. "It's already bloody hot here, mate. Last week was the first week of spring and it was 31C (88F.) in Brisbane. Yet we're still two months away from the final. That will work in our favour, there's no doubt of that."

So might a general groundswell of anticipation that has surprised even diehard rugbymen. Slack reports people who hardly know one end of a rugby ball from the other, sitting in pubs or standing in the streets discussing the upcoming tournament. "We're probably kidding ourselves if we think it's going to be as big as the Sydney Olympics. But there's no doubt a lot of people are going to be caught up in it all and they'll all be behind the Wallabies."

But then, they were in 1987. And Australia's crash in the semi-final in Sydney, to Serge Blanco and his wondrous Frenchmen, could be heard halfway across the Pacific Ocean. It might be a similar story this time.

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