The Wallabies will beat Uruguay today. Not that the result is important.
Okay, yes. The result is important in that anything but a victory would be catastrophically humiliating for Australia.
But they will win. You know that, I know that, Michael Cheika knows that, so we can safely do away with the ‘here’s where the game will be won and lost’ talk.
It’s a fixture from which the Wallabies have plenty to lose and very little to gain. When a bonus-point performance is the expected outcome there’s a lot of space for underachieving and nothing – at least as far as the standings are concerned – which could constitute an overachievement.
So what should we expect from Cheika’s charges against Uruguay?
As many pointed out on Thursday, we’ll take a bonus-point win, no injuries and no suspensions, thank you very much.
Let’s add a little more to the wish list though, shall we?
Australia have been handicapped by their slow starts, particularly by the forwards, in both pool games to date. Against Fiji, it raised concerns (or hopes, depending on your viewpoint) of an upset, against Wales it cost them the match.
While it’s almost an entirely different pack to the one which trotted out last Sunday, a fast start against Uruguay is a must. It might be arrogant, disrespectful towards Los Teros even, who’ve caused one of the upsets of the tournament, but the Wallabies should be aiming for a bonus point by half time. It’s about time they put together a complete performance from the first minute.
Nic White and Christian Lealiifano would certainly benefit from a more switched-on start from their forwards. While not at their best in the opener against Fiji, the pair were given nothing resembling an effective platform in the first half in Sapporo and then replaced for the Wales match.
It’s hard to imagine them being in much danger of being dropped for a quarter-final given Bernard Foley and Will Genia’s performance against the Six Nations champions but a confidence-booster won’t go astray, nor should anyone expect wholly predictable selections after five years of Cheika’s tenure.
With that last caveat in mind, it’s possible for someone on the fringes of the first XV to force their way into the starting side for the matches to come against Georgia and in the knockout stages.
Matt To’omua is one. Impressive off the bench in both games, he evidently remains behind Lealiifano in the no.10 pecking order after being named at inside centre. But with concerns around the latter’s durability and the absence of another flyhalf on the bench, To’omua will likely get another half-hour or so of running the team from first-five.
A lone strong performance against Uruguay is hardly sufficient form to demand a run-on spot for a quarter-final. If he makes it three straight matches out-performing the starter, though, you’d hardly begrudge To’omua the no.10 jersey.
A more fascinating selection hypothetical surrounds Jordan Petaia.
The 19-year-old has finally, finally, been named to make his Wallabies debut. His talent has never been in doubt, and had his body been more reliable his first Test would have come long before today.
The fact he’s been around the national set-up for such a long is evidence of how highly he’s rated by Cheika.
So let’s say he plays the house down against Los Teros. Let’s say that leads to another start and another standout performance against Georgia.
Does he play in the quarter-final?
Marika Koroibete is going to keep his place on the left wing. That’s where Petaia will play today, but there’s an opening on the other side of the field.
Reece Hodge will have the inside running. But he’ll not have played since the opening weekend due to suspension, and his versatility makes him an attractive bench option.
Adam Ashley-Cooper was fine against Wales, nothing more. Other than experience, there’s not a great deal he brings to the side these days.
Dane Haylett-Petty has been named on the wing for today’s match. It’s a bemusing decision. He was assured at the back against Wales, while Kurtley Beale has been anything but in recent times wearing the 15. The Melbourne Rebel should be playing at fullback for the rest of the tournament.
That’s the extent of Cheika’s wingers. Petaia is the youngest, with by far the least experience. But if those factors are going to keep him from playing in major games, he shouldn’t be in the World Cup squad in the first place.
Talk of a quarter-final gig, or another appearance against Georgia, for that matter, happens without a good performance in Oita this afternoon. And that at least gives the Wallabies something to gain from what should be an otherwise straightforward fixture.