Rugby World Cup warm-up
- 5 August 2011
- From the section Asia-Pacific
Australia has not lifted the Rugby World Cup since John Eales was handed the Webb Ellis trophy by the Queen at the Millennium Stadium in November 1999 on the very day that his compatriots opted to retain her services as Australia's head of state - a day of two halves, I think you will agree, for rugby-loving republicans.
Indeed, not since 2003, when John Howard huffily awarded the cup to the victorious England captain Martin Johnson at Homebush, have the Wallabies come close to winning rugby's most illustrious prize.
Perhaps that could be about to change at this year's tournament which starts in September, especially if the New Zealand All Blacks are afflicted by their usual quadrennial bout of stage fright and fail to end a World Cup losing streak that, remarkably, stretches back to the first World Cup in 1987. A fascinating form guide comes this very weekend, when the All Blacks take on the Wallabies in the Bledisloe Cup.
The first thing to say is that we are taking about a rejuvenated team and a rejuvenated game. This time two years ago union was not only in the doldrums but in the bad books. With the ball hoofed mindlessly from one end of the pitch to the other, and then back again, the game had become a moronic kickathon singularly devoid of flair, inventiveness and ambition. In common with a lot of union fans, I had started warming to the amputated version of the game, where 26 men take to the field rather than the full compliment of 30. Footy rejoiced in the stunning success of the State of Origin, while union was in a state of chronic disrepair.
The game's revival in Australia has come from an unexpected quarter: the Queensland Reds, the one-time whipping boys of Antipodean rugby. Deserved champions of the Super 15 title - the first Australian side to win the tri-nations championship since the Brumbies in 2004 - the Reds have stayed true to the founding heresy of William Webb Ellis: that the ball should be picked up, passed between advancing players and carried towards the try-line at maximum velocity.
The Reds' star player, Quade Cooper, doubles as world's rugby's star player. He of the acrobatic sidestep, the exaggerated dummy, and the kind of slight of hand that one would normally associate with a conjuror or juggler. But there are stars aplenty in the Wallabies team. His Queensland teammate, Will Genia, for one. The flanker, David Pocock, who would put up a good fight against the All Blacks Richie McCaw, for the starting jersey in a World XV. Then there is Kurtley Beale and James O'Connor, two speedsters with talent to burn. And we not even mentioned the remarkable Digby Ioane, another Queensland stand-out.
There are weaknesses in the Wallabies outfit. The squad lacks depth. If Cooper or Genia were ruled out through injury they would surely struggle. On tours to the northern hemisphere, for instance, the Australian front row routinely spend so much time with their faces buried in the mud that it looks as if they are attempting to tunnel their way back home.
It is a shame that rugby does not have more of a following here. It is the only major winter code without a permanent presence on free-to-air television - the Super 15 only make it onto cable. Moreover, this most physically egalitarian of sports - where else do the fat, tall and small play alongside each other quite so seamlessly - is also regarded as an elite game. Its powerhouse is the top private schools in New South Wales and Queensland which have produced so many test stars. (where I grew up in the West Country, another rugby powerhouse, we all played union, whether you went to state or private school, a key difference).
My money is on the All Blacks to win the World Cup. They play the game as it was meant to be played, with abandon, exuberance and unrelenting fluency. Attacks come, wave after glorious wave. And who would bet against a side which can afford to leave a player as gifted as Sonny Bill Williams, the former league star, on the bench?
If the All Blacks do falter then I obviously hope the beneficiaries will be wearing white shirts and be urged onto victory by cries of Swing Low Sweet Chariot reverberating around Eden Park. But it may well be the Wallabies.