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Predictions, young stars to watch, WC memories and retirement: Drew Mitchell and George Smith

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16th September, 2019
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With the Rugby World Cup just days away and Australia hunting redemption for their tantalising 2015 final loss to the dominant All Blacks, former Wallaby legends Drew Mitchell and George Smith opened up about the tournament.

Speaking to The Roar from Kayo’s Rugby World Cup launch in Syndey – the streaming platform will be showing all 48 matches of the tournament live and on demand – Mitchell and Smith gave their World Cup predictions, their thoughts on the Wallabies side as well as the best rising stars and their own favourite memories from over the years.

The 2019 edition of rugby’s biggest tournament is shaping up as one of the most open and unpredictable of all time, with three teams swapping the World No.1 ranking in just the last three months alone.

The gap between the Southern and Northern Hemispheres has shrunk, with sides on both sides of the equator putting their hands up as serious contenders for the Web Ellis trophy.

Even after a rollercoaster 2019 of results, Drew Mitchell believes this World Cup will be led by the Wallabies and a Springboks side on the rise, as well as an interesting lack of New Zealand dominance.

“I think Australia are going to go out and there and win it. I won’t bring myself to go against them but that’s also me believing in the group that they’ve got and also believing in the coaching staff, believing in Michael Cheika and what he can do and how good he is at getting a group really singularly focused and believing in the outcome that they want to go out there and achieve come the first weekend of November,” he said during Kayo’s World Cup launch.

“I think they’ll beat South Africa in the final. I think they’re (South Africa) in a really good position at the moment, they’ve got a really deep squad which is important. They can make some changes through the pool games to make sure that the team’s firing come the elimination games and the quarter-finals.

“Maybe six or 12 months ago people weren’t talking too much about South Africa and the state in which they were in at that point but I feel like they’ve made some huge strides forward and they’re probably going to be the team that Australia is going to have to beat.”

Malcolm Marx battles the Wallabies.

(Photo by Jono Searle/Getty Images)

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Despite the dominance of England since the last World Cup and the emergence of Ireland and Wales as global players, Mitchell has also thrown the Northern Hemisphere’s chances out the window, believing Japan will run a similar race to the 2015 Cup.

“I think it’s going to be a Southern Hemisphere World Cup again, I think the conditions in Japan, it’s going to be hot, it’s going to be dry, it’s going to be fast footy and I think that suits the Southern Hemisphere teams quite a lot and you know, last World Cup all four semi-finalists were Southern Hemisphere sides,” he said.

“I don’t know if it’s going to be too dissimilar this time around to be honest, I know that Ireland and Wales have sat for a couple of days each at number one in the world but I think they’re irrelevant, they’re almost not even worth looking at really, I don’t understand how those rankings actually work nor do I think anyone else does and I think the only ones really taking notice of it are Welsh and Irish fans in the last couple of weeks.

“That being said, obviously they’re going to be competitive and I think it’s a really open World Cup, probably the most open certainly I’ve been this engaged in. I think England are going to be really strong, they’ve kind of come good at the right time.

“Two years ago we were probably talking about them quite positively in terms of where they sat in the world, then it was Ireland’s turn and then it was Wales’ turn and I think it’s sort of come back full circle back to England and I think they’re probably going to be the most threatening side from the Northern Hemisphere, but like I said I think it’s going to be a Southern Hemisphere World Cup.”

Sticking to his own nations guns, veteran George Smith also believes the Wallabies are in as good a position as any for Japan, also highlighting the Springboks as a genuine threat to win it all.

“I think the Wallabies chances are encouraging, there were some interesting games leading up to the tournament, obviously the All Blacks are the standout, but they were humbled (in the Rugby Championship),” Smith said.

Nic White

(Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

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“It was encouraging to see Pocock back out on the field in the last game before their departure. I think team unity is such a big thing in tournaments, especially when they’re living inside each other’s pockets for potentially an eight-week tournament, hopefully that’s one of the key things they’re galvanised together with but also being injury free, making sure the squad’s injury-free.

“The teams that have shown favouritism leading into this tournament are probably the English and the Springboks, they’ve played consistent football. The English humbling the Irish just recently was an indication on how strong they are, and then the Springboks have played well and they’ve got some really good key players in their team like Faf de Klerk, Francois Steyn and Francois Louw, so I think those two teams will be the key teams.”

Coach Michael Cheika has a few selection wrinkles to iron out before the Wallabies first game of the tournament, including a tricky back three that is seemingly the most loaded for talent in the entire squad.

With plenty of combinations to work with, Mitchell wants to see Cheika lean on one of his more seasoned players to round out the back line in Adam Ashley-Cooper.

“I think I’d have Marika and Kurtley as a lock (in the starting XV),” Mitchell said.

“Marika’s form has been outstanding and his work rate’s huge, his finishing ability is that of a genuine winger. Kurtley’s played at the back and the way he comes in and injects himself into the attacking line, the way he is able to summarise his opportunities, whether it’s kick or run, I think he’s going to be crucial for us to be successful over there.

“For me, I know Reece Hodge Dane Haylett-Petty have been playing quite a lot on the wing, but I think for them they’ve just not had enough time on the wing at Super Rugby level. I’d actually play Adam Ashley-Cooper on the wing. His experiences, his defence is really strong, his communication’s huge, his calmness, his experience and also his work out wide in the breakdown is really strong, he gets a number of turnovers at the Waratahs. He just knows where to put himself in certain positions, he’s a genuine finisher, he knows how to find the line, he’s know how to position himself.

“I think he’s just got a better understanding of wing play, whereas I think we’ve just thought that Reece and Dane are outside backs that can play wing, I think they’re both really good players, but I’d play Adam Ashley-Cooper.”

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Mitchell isn’t the only fan of Marika Koroibete, with Smith believing the big winger will be one of a few key players that can dictate Australia’s success at the Cup.

“I think Koroibete‘s shown that he has the ability to open games up,” he said. “I think Nic White will be a standout as well, I think the halfback carries so much input in the game and controls the tempo of the game, so he will be a key person in the tournament. Folau Faingaa I think will have a fantastic tournament as well.”

Marika Koroibete

(Photo by Jono Searle/Getty Images)

For Mitchell, his key player and a potential breakout man for the Wallabies sits in the forward pack, an area that’s brought the Australians varying degrees of success for some time now.

“I’d probably say Tolu Latu to be honest, he’s a guy that’s had some issues this year with this suspension and other things and he’s always sort of teased us with his potential but to be able to do that on the biggest stage for the World Cup, week in week out, I think he’s going to have a break out World Cup,” he said.

Sticking with the big men, Smith believes Australia has been running with exactly the right men at the back of the scrum, with a combination that is now only strengthened with the return of David Pocock.

“I think the back-row combination they have at the moment seems to be going well with Isi (Naisarani), Lukhan (Salakaia-Loto) and (Michael) Hooper and it’s encouraging to see Pocock back in the mix with the ability to play several positions in that back row and do them really well, and that is important for any team so I can see the Pocock-Hooper combination working within games, but I can definitely see the position combination they’ve had for the last few weeks continuing on, especially for the early matches against Fiji and Wales,” said Smith.

Having pointed out the likes of Koroibete and Latu as Australia’s next generation of stars, Mitchell put forward an interesting dark horse for a potential global breakout player in the unlikely lineup of Fiji.

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“Almost like the impact that Rupeni Caucaunibuca had in 2003, I think Josua Tuisova, the Fijian winger, will really get people excited,” Mitchell said.

“He may not be player of the tournament, they may not go deep in the tournament, but in terms of back in 2003 when Rupeni was having a really big time and almost made Fiji everyone’s second team because of the way he played, I think Jos Tuisova has the potential to do that.”

While he didn’t play in 2015, Mitchell’s favourite World Cup memory comes as a player that year.

“My favourite memory is probably 2015, going all the way through to the final, it’s probably also my worst in getting that close and losing it but I think that in totality the whole campaign from when I first came back from France, throughout the training camps, the lead-up games and that kind of momentum we were able to build through the course of that World Cup was just something pretty special to be involved in.”

For Smith, though, his fondest memories of the World Cup come from a sentimental place as well as an appreciation for the best rugby on the planet.

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“I enjoyed when Willie O (Viliami Ofahengaue) played because he was a person of Tongan descent, he’s a player that I looked up to so watching him play in a World Cup I guess put those thoughts into your mind that you could be at one in the future,” he said.

“I think the Stephen Larkham drop kick is pretty iconic to a lot of Australians my age. Obviously the Springboks win in 1995 was a big one for me growing up, watching how that galvanised a whole nation. The All Blacks winning back-to-back World Cups was pretty huge as well.”

Despite revealing that he had intentions to play into an unprecedented fourth decade of professional rugby early in 2019, George Smith eventually hung up the boots after his stint in Bristol this year, a decision he was happy to make for the sake of his family.

“I really ran the tank dry in the back end of the Bristol season, he said. “I enjoyed the rugby but in terms of being away from the family, my family were back in Australia while I was over in the UK playing, that had a huge impact on me so coming back now I’m really enjoying the family life, doing the daddy daycare pick-up, drop-off, and all that stuff and also working with a different company in Australia, so it’s been a nice transition.”

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For Mitchell, his retirement back in 2017 was a slap-in-the-face moment, realising he just didn’t want to be there anymore despite his physical condition.

“I was sitting in a team meeting in Toulon in 2017 and I just thought to myself, I’d rather be anywhere than where I am right now, so I thought if it got to that point then it’s time to pull the pin,” he said.

“I walked out and I drafted a tweet and I hit send before I had time to speak to anyone. They say sometimes when you know, you know… I trusted that feeling, I didn’t want to talk to anyone because I think I’d give them an opportunity to talk me out of it. Physically if I was to apply myself then who knows, I might be able to be playing at some level, even if it’s club footy, but you get to a point where mentally I wasn’t able to engage where I needed to be and I’ve not regretted it one bit.

“There’s a lot of sacrifices and a lot of discipline and it can be quite taxing and I was just exhausted on those fronts so I just pressed send on the Tweet and you can’t go back once it’s up on Twitter.”

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