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They are two-time champions and possess some of the most talented backs in world rugby. But the Wallabies face the toughest of draws in the so-called “group of death”.
Adding to this uncertainty, relatively new coach Michael Cheika has been settling into the team since the shock resignation of Ewen McKenzie in October last year following disagreements with some players and a string of poor results.
The Wallabies go into the World Cup with a question mark hanging over the popularity of rugby union in the country. Success would generate much-needed public enthusiasm at home for the sport; if the squad does badly, it will not help with maintaining rugby’s foothold as one of the dominant winter sports.
A cash crunch in recent years has forced the Australian Rugby Union to slash players’ salaries, impose a levy on all clubs and restructure the sport to attract new players. The architect of this plan is Bill Pulver, who was appointed ARU chief executive in the midst of the crisis.
Annual revenues slumped to A$103m (£49m) in 2014 from A$145m in 2013. In 2015, revenues could slip as low as A$80m.
“We had to introduce some very tough measures,” says Pulver. “But now we are in a position to invest in rugby union and grow the sport.”
Pulver has introduced the new National Rugby Championship, which aims to develop a pathway for the best club players to progress to the elite Super Rugby competition and Wallabies selection.
He is also focusing on developing Australia’s sevens rugby squads ahead of the Rio Olympics and boosting female participation.
There are signs the reforms are working. The number of people playing rugby union last year was 687,488 — up 12 per cent on the previous year. Some 26,000 women played the sport. However, rugby union still lags behind participation in rugby league, Australian rules football and association football.
Most rugby pundits believe the best way to draw in new fans and players is through success on the pitch, particularly in World Cups.
“Winning the World Cup in 1991, 1999 and then hosting it in 2003 provided a huge boost to Australian rugby,” says Tim Horan, a former Wallabies World Cup winner. “So success is really important.”
The Wallabies’ results have improved recently, with victories over Argentina, South Africa and New Zealand in July and August.
Australia’s back line is blessed with talent, from the mercurial Quade Cooper to the powerful Folau. The scrum is vital to the team’s prospects. “Hooker Stephen Moore will be a key player for us,” says Horan. If Cheika, who has enjoyed success at Leinster and the New South Wales Waratahs, can marshal the forwards into a coherent unit, the Wallabies will be tough competitors.
“It’s vitally important to get off to a good start,” says Horan. “But I think the Wallabies are in with a great chance of winning.”
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