Pitted in a tough group which includes Wales and Fiji, coming off a Bledisloe Cup series which went from sublime to pitiful, and not favoured to go all the way at the World Cup?
The 2019 edition sounds an awful lot like a re-write of the script leading up to the last tournament for the Wallabies. If they have a repeat of 2015, Japan 2019 will be considered a success for Michael Cheika’s men.
Wallabies Rugby World Cup squad
Allan Alaalatoa, Rory Arnold, Adam Coleman, Jack Dempsey, Folau Fainga’a, Michael Hooper (c), Sekope Kepu, Tolu Latu, Isi Naisarani, David Pocock, Izack Rodda, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Rob Simmons, Scott Sio, James Slipper, Taniela Tupou, Jordan Uelese.
Adam Ashley-Cooper, Kurtley Beale, Bernard Foley, Will Genia, Dane Haylett-Petty, Reece Hodge, Samu Kerevi (vc), Marika Koroibete, Tevita Kuridrani, Christian Lealiifano, James O’Connor, Jordan Petaia, Matt Toomua, Nic White.
There weren’t too many surprises in the 31-man squad, Cheika largely sticking with the group who were used for the Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup.
Uncapped youngster Jordan Petaia is the one bolter, with Dane Haylett-Petty edging Tom Banks for the last outside back spot. There are only two halfbacks – Nic White and Will Genia – and there wasn’t any room for the experienced Tatafu Polota-Nau despite three hookers being taken to Japan.
It’s easy to forget this Wallabies side put 47 points – and six tries – on the All Blacks just last month, proof that when the attack clicks, Australia have the attacking talent to match anyone.
Nic White’s play out of scrumhalf has been exceptional since his move back from Exeter, and if David Pocock is fit, Cheika has an elite pilferer – and proven World Cup performer – at his disposal.
The set-piece also looms as a real strength for the Wallabies, particularly the lineout and accompanying rolling maul (yet another similarity to 2015).
A few weeks ago, you’d have the scrum listed as a definite strength – it was excellent in the side’s two Rugby Championship wins this year. But it was exposed in Bledisloe 2 and even had some shaky moments against Samoa last weekend, so how it holds up against the European scrummaging power of Wales in the pool stage and potentially England in the quarter-finals will be crucial.
It’s no surprise that the bulk of the tight five will be made up of Brumbies, after the Canberrans were dominant up front in their run to the Super Rugby semi-finals.
Aside from the Bledisloe 1 win, the Wallabies attack actually hasn’t been that good this year – they only scored three tries in their two other Rugby Championship Tests and were held scoreless by the All Blacks at Eden Park. The potential is clearly there, but will it be unlocked consistently enough for a deep tournament run?
There are concerns over the depth – and, indeed, first-choice selections – in a couple of areas.
Lukhan Salakaia-Loto lacks the mobility and breakdown impact which Scott Fardy brought so well to the no.6 jersey back in 2015, but there aren’t a lot of alternatives in the squad. Jack Dempsey is a more natural flanker than Salakaia-Loto but played number 8 against Samoa last weekend. There’s a chance Pocock could be asked to play a second straight World Cup out of position if Cheika feels the need to change up his blindside approach.
The back-three options, too, are questionable.
Kurtley Beale’s inconsistency leaves him best suited to an impact role off the bench rather than starting at fullback, but with Tom Banks left out and Dane Haylett-Petty the only genuine 15 in the squad – despite starting his only two Tests of the year so far on the wing – the Waratah is clearly the preferred option at the back.
Marika Koroibete has enjoyed his best year for the Wallabies so far, but picking him and Reece Hodge on the wings and Beale at fullback would see Australia with a trio which is slow in open play and weak against the high ball.
The best measure of a player’s value to a team is how the side performs in their absence. If you follow that line of thinking, Arnold is Australia’s most important player; it’s no coincidence the Wallabies’ Bledisloe 2 loss came with him out injured.
The big back-rower was superb all year for the Brumbies as they topped the Australian conference and made it to the semi-finals. He was also consistently among the best of the men wearing gold throughout the Rugby Championship.
Arnold is excellent in the lineout both in attack and defence, his ability to disrupt opposition mauls particularly noteworthy. He also makes his presence felt around the breakdown and in general play, and is more capable of laying on a deft pass than you’d typically expect from a bloke standing closer to seven foot than six.
Headed overseas once the World Cup is over, a standout stint in Japan from the 29-year-old could both catapult the Wallabies into genuine contention and make his departure that little bit less disappointing.
There are six teams who are capable of leaving Japan as world champions. The Wallabies are the first of those we’ve covered in our preview series, and they do deserve to be in that group.
Any side which defeats the All Blacks so convincingly is clearly capable of beating anyone on their day. Doing it consistently over the course of a tournament is a far tougher task than putting together one very good performance against 14 men, though.
World Cup-winning coach Bob Dwyer claimed you need five players who’d make a World XV to hold the Web Ellis Cup. That bodes poorly for Australia.
The Wallabies have some who’d be in the discussion for such a side. Arnold is one, Samu Kerevi another, Pocock would be if fit, and White’s the only halfback I can remember seeing clearly out-play Aaron Smith in a recent Test.
But overall, they lack the volume of world-class players to make it all the way in Japan. We have them finishing second in the group behind Wales, then falling to England in the quarters.