Wallabies must pack early punch

By Tim Horan in Sydney



The waiting is finally over. Before a full house at Sydney’s Telstra Stadium on Friday, anxious Australians will get a sneak preview of whether their world champions can cut the mustard.

The Wallabies, more than ever, will feel like they are carrying the weight of a nation’s expectations into the World Cup opener against Argentina, a showdown that will give many supporters a good dose of the jitters.

Let’s face it, after victories at home over France and a close shave with South Africa, Argentina are no slouches. If Australia get early points on the board they can run away with it, but there’s always a nagging worry that they could be stifled by the occasion. If there’s one match in which Australia have to watch out for banana skins, it’s this one.

The only plus is that Australia can get a tricky game out of the way early and move on, hopefully, with confidence.

Argentina have a good pack and the Wallaby forwards will need to offer protection to George Gregan, who will be harrassed by Agustin Pichot all night.

There is a sneaking feeling that Eddie Jones and his players have held a bit back for the tournament. Everyone is hoping that’s the case, but you can’t afford to keep things under wraps until the semi-finals. It’s like a prize fighter guarding his knockout punch until round nine, hoping that his opponent doesn’t pull any surprises in the meantime.

The Wallabies have worked extremely hard on their fitness, doing outlandish sprints in temperatures well into the nineties in sun-baked Darwin. One hundred metres used to be my limit. But it is in this area that I expect them to tame the Pumas.

Jones has had the benefit of having his players in and out of camp consistently since the end of the Tri-Nations and last Saturday, at their Coffs Harbour base, the gloves came off for a 15 on 15 no-holds-barred mini dress rehearsal.

But any All Black or England spies would have wondered what the hell was going on if they had turned up in the hope of catching some inside information the previous week.

Jones decided to have a Trading Places day, with Elton Flatley grabbing the clipboard and becoming head coach, mimicking Jones at every opportunity, Lote Tuqiri, equipped with head gear and thigh strap, turning his hand to prop, and Wendell Sailor, at half-back, looking like a Gregan on steroids, among some baffling changes. Jones rolled back the years to his schoolboy days by playing stand-off. On face value it may all seem a pointless exercise but this sort of frivolity only helps to reinforce camaraderie.

When the real business starts on Friday, I’ve got a feeling Jones will play Stirling Mortlock - not long back after major shoulder surgery - from the start on Friday, but I’d much rather see him eased back in the games against Romania and Namibia.

The No 15 spot is open but I’d play Mat Rogers there and use Chris Latham off the bench, though I suspect Jones may do the opposite. While Latham is a great player, he has sometimes found it hard to transform his form on to the international stage. Rogers has shown just how dangerous a player he is, capable of creating match-winning opportunities.

It’s his style that the Wallabies need from the outset to make their mark. You may have the best defence in the world but it will mean very little if you can’t break the opposition’s line.

Although stand-off Stephen Larkham has worked hard on his kicking game, it will never be his forte, so he will have to interchange quite often with Flatley. Up front, where Australia are going to struggle to contain the likes of England and the Springboks, I’d have George Smith, Phil Waugh and David Lyons in the back row, David Giffin and Nathan Sharpe in the second row and Brendon Cannon sandwiched between Ben Darwin and Al Baxter.

I don’t mean to come across a little apprehensive about Australia’s chances because I believe if they can get the early momentum, which is so crucial, they can go all the way. As good as they are, the All Blacks are still an inexperienced side and it only takes a hint of indecision to open the way for opportunism.

Even at my in-laws’ small farming community of Surat, 300 miles west of Brisbane and just 30 minutes from where Prince Harry is learning to be a jackaroo, where I spent most of last week, they are talking of the World Cup. With the last of the distractions - the rugby league Grand Final out of the way today - the width and breath of Australia is about to be bitten by the 15-a-side bug.

How much has the game evolved? Well, in 1987 when the Wallabies faced France in the semi-finals in Sydney, officials were happy to coax 18,000 patrons through the turnstiles. If Australia earn a semi-final showdown with the All Blacks in the same city next month, the cheers of 80,000 will be ringing in the players’ ears.

Everyone is getting into the swing of things, even the people of Launceston in Tasmania who are not well versed in the game but are more than happy to host the tie between Namibia and Romania at the end of the month. The mayor has come up with the novel idea of people born on even days supporting Namibia and those on odd cheering on the Romanians.

The first three or four days after arriving Down Under can make or break the overseas contenders. When the Wallabies arrived in Dublin for their 1999 cup-winning challenge, we did nothing but have a few drinks and a round of golf for the first four days.

How the players combat jetlag will be important because the effects can last up to a week. Train too soon after arriving and it could irretrievably set your preparation back. It’s so important to relax and fine-tune yourself mentally because if you haven’t already done the physical preparation and planned how your are going to play, you have missed the boat.

Clive Woodward is partly right when he says the form-book goes out the window once the tournament starts. But a lot of sides would like to be in England’s shoes, with their experience and pin-point accurate preparation. The jury may be still out on Australia, but there are no such worries for England. Their expectations are so high they are almost stifling. For them, bringing home Bill (the William Webb Ellis Trophy) is the only conclusion.