By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Bookmakers hate them, their fans are sceptical and the Wallabies have won barely a third of their tests in the last two seasons.
Yet that might just mean they stand poised for a very deep run at the World Cup in Japan.
Michael Cheika’s men may be rugby’s equivalent of Russia in the eyes of Winston Churchill — “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”
They are rated 15-1, or worse, of claiming a third World Cup, and the betting agencies’ disdain would seem entirely justifiable given the near-constant chaos that seems to engulf them.
A nation that once produced world class athletes with regularity cut loose possibly their only player of that calibre in May after fullback Israel Folau posted a meme on Twitter that said hell awaited “homosexuals” and other groups.
With Cheika under withering pressure after a dreadful 2018 season of four wins and nine losses, Rugby Australia overhauled the back-room staff less than a year out from Japan, moving on attack coach Stephen Larkham.
Larkham’s replacement Shaun Berne was not settled until June, feeding perceptions that the sixth-ranked Wallabies’ World Cup planning has been very much on the fly.
Through the clamour of criticism, Cheika has remained defiant that dawn follows the darkest hour.
Australia, after all, know how to peak during World Cups and he was the architect of his unfancied side’s run to the 2015 final in England.
Cheika is convinced he has a team to match or better that result, a notion that seemed pure bluster until a month ago in Perth.
There, the Wallabies rose from a fog of mediocrity to rack up a record 47-26 defeat of the world champion All Blacks, running the ball with similar invention and assurance of the Australians that scooped the World Cups in 1991 and 1999.
While the follow-up 36-0 thrashing by the same opponents in Eden Park a week later certainly tempered the euphoria, it would not have completely nixed the gains from Perth.
Constant spinning of the selection wheel has finally produced a promising blend of beef and inspiration, with big-bodied locks and loose forwards that can bash over the gain-line to unleash what was once a hamstrung, hesitant backline.
While the Perth win all but confirmed Cheika’s starting 15 in Japan, the former Randwick enforcer will have to decide how David Pocock fits into the equation.
The ‘Pooper’ gambit of pairing Pocock and captain Michael Hooper as twin openside flankers in the back row proved a masterstroke at the 2015 World Cup but may not be reprised due to the impressive start of rookie number eight Isi Naisarani.
Barring a slip-up in their Sept. 21 opener against Fiji in Sapporo, the Wallabies should comfortably reach the quarter-finals from Pool D, which includes Wales, Georgia and Uruguay.
From there, it is anyone’s guess, with the Wallabies appearing equally capable of firing or flaming out.
“We’ll be a little bit unpredictable, that’s been a little bit of our theme this year,” Cheika joked during the unveiling of his World Cup squad.
“If we don’t know what we’re doing no one will know what we’re doing.”
(Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Greg Stutchbury)