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Three-quarters of the way through pool play at the Rugby World Cup and it’s hard to find anyone with a good word to say about Australia’s campaign so far, let alone their prospects.
From the high of the strong performance against New Zealand in the last Tri-Nations game in Brisbane not so very long ago we’ve ratcheted down several notches.
The unconvincing first half against Italy in the opening World Cup game was a rough opening before clawing one back with an excellent 20 minutes or so in the second half of that game (marred only by the injury to Digby Ioane, looking in his absence more and more like a key player).
From there however it all fell off a cliff against Ireland. Even a thorough romp against the US couldn’t halt the slide once the injury toll of that game was revealed.
Those injuries leave the squad with barely enough for a fit 22 to play the last pool game, and allow all the Deans skeptics to make the logical leap of going from a selection gamble that went wrong to proof of poor management all round.
The prevailing mood is that it’s all more doom and gloom from here on in. You’d say it’s been a roller-coaster ride, except that it’s been long on plummeting and very thin on anything upward.
Allow me to don my incurable optimist hat and put the contrary case.
First off, the Wallabies will beat Russia on Saturday, and will get a bonus point in doing so. That will most likely leave them second in their pool (theoretically they could still top the pool, or, very theoretically possibly even miss out – both of those permutations can be ignored).
Next, assuming that happens, and other favourites all get up, that sees Australia’s run through the knockout stages as South Africa, New Zealand and then England. And that really sets the hand-wringing going.
However, it’s a Rugby World Cup. Did you think you could avoid playing those teams?
And what would have happened if there hadn’t been the Irish debacle? The probable lineup for the Wallabies then completely changes to Wales, England and New Zealand. Actually, that’s not such a complete change. England and New Zealand swap around, and the Wallabies play South Africa instead of Wales.
You can make an argument that’s not such a bad thing. After all, Australia does play South Africa regularly.
Everyone knows how they’ll play, and the Wallabies know how to beat them. The same comments apply can be made in the other direction it’s true, but I just don’t see that having to go this way makes winning the World Cup any appreciably harder for the Wallabies.
There have been a few comments to the effect that South Africa have been very impressive in the cup so far. They have, but not to an extent that the Wallabies should think playing against them is the end of the road.
On the basis of their pool game, South Africa and Wales are very much on a par with each other. Certainly South Africa looked good against Fiji – but then Fiji subsequently have looked to be not what they were at the last cup. They’ve then put the cleaners through Namibia – which, with all due respect, doesn’t mean much.
They will probably beat Samoa (coming off another short turnaround) on Friday – again, I don’t think that’s conclusive evidence of anything.
Third, lots of people pointed out before the World Cup that one of the problems for the Wallabies has been winning multiple successive games, and their inability to maintain a consistently high level of performance.
The Irish game was a shocker, and there’s no way they’d have planned to play that way, but at least they’ve had the shocker they seem to have to have every few games.
It doesn’t make them immune to having another of course, but at least if any of them were getting ahead of themselves that would have been firmly nipped in the bud.
You can also hope that they’d have learned a bit from the Irish game, as they seemed to learn a bit from the first Tri-Nations game against New Zealand, and point to the conditions in the game favouring Ireland much more than them, and the late disruptions to their team (Pocock and Moore) as elements that hopefully wouldn’t be repeated.
There’s also the concept of building into a tournament – it’s often not a good thing to be playing your best at the start of a tournament. Very few if any teams can maintain that level of performance throughout a long tournament.
Of course, that theory does assume that you start to play better and better as the tournament goes on …
And that leaves us with the injuries there have been. It’s hard to make a positive of them.
The carnage in the centres hasn’t been good. That neither of Horne or McCabe has been replaced as I write this is mystifying – or perhaps indicates neither injury is as bad as it sounds.
The team is a lot closer to these things than any of us after all. The delay in replacing Palu also seems mystifying. Again, is there something there we outsiders don’t see? Are they weighing up who else is injured and who they most urgently need cover for?
But even with all those injuries, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the core of the side that won the tri-nations is intact for the quarter finals.
The optimist in me, working overtime, hopes that they’re all fully fit (and even a bit rested after a long season). It’s also worth noting that while the Wallabies gambled on taking several crocks to the cup, most of them (Barnes, Mitchell, Slipper, Polota-Nau) are actually still upright and in a better position than they were to still make significant contributions – which shouldn’t be forgotten when bemoaning the original selections of Horne and Palu.
So will Australia win? Who knows. If they have a reasonable run with injuries and a fair shake of the other imponderables, they still can.
Really, that’s the position they’ve been in for the past year, so to me all the doom and gloom we’ve been hearing is premature.