The Wallabies arrive at the 2015 World Cup ranked second in the world but with their title credentials still hard to pin down.
Coach Michael Cheika only took over late last year and a poor autumn tour ensued. But this year the Wallabies have improved fast, and won five of six Tests - including a victory over the All Blacks. That was followed by a heavy defeat in Auckland a week later.
Exactly which Wallaby team will turn up at the World Cup is yet to be seen, but on the evidence of the last few months they’ll be more contender than pretender in the infamous pool of death.
Coach Michael Cheika returned to Australian rugby after stints with Leinster and Stade Francais and announced he still had plenty of faith in “old school” methods.
He delighted in torturing the NSW Waratahs by sending them up and down the famous “Coogee stairs” - a leg-sapping set of 210 stairs situated near the east Sydney beach. As much a mental test as physical, the climbing worked; the Waratahs broke a 19-year drought to win Super Rugby in 2014.
Cheika has carried the training regimen through to his new posting with the Wallabies. The Australian squad’s last training session on home soil last month was a gruelling conditioning session at Manly, where he eschewed the science and technology and sent his players up and down steep streets, avoiding cars that were also using the roads. Cheika even joined in.
The Wallabies’ secret weapon at this tournament may be a four-time World Cup player - for Argentina. Mario Ledesma, the grizzled Pumas no.2 who was voted in as hooker of World Rugby’s all-time greatest World Cup team, has taken charge of the Australian scrum this season.
After playing and coaching alongside Cheika at Stade Francais, Ledesma began working with him at the NSW Waratahs this year before joining the Wallabies coaching staff as well. He has quickly achieved results with the oft-maligned Wallaby scrum by installing a new technical approach.
Smashed by England last year, the Aussie pack stood its ground - and more - against New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina this winter.
When you can leave brilliant flanker George Smith out of a World Cup squad, you know you’re doing okay with back row strength. The Wallabies will enter the tournament boasting two outstanding no.7s in David Pocock and Michael Hooper. Smith, the 111-cap flanker now at Wasps, was phoned by coach Michael Cheika earlier in the year to put him on call for World Cup duty. The follow-up call never came.
Returning from two years of injury, Pocock was voted Australia’s best Super Rugby player but Hooper answered the challenge with his own brilliant form. Pocock played no.8 in the Wallabies’ win over the All Blacks and the duo caused breakdown havoc. Expect more of the same in the World Cup.
Cheika’s other life?
Cheika’s reputation as a fiery coach is well known, with halftime sprays, training field b*llockings and the odd run in with rugby authorities. But did you know Cheika was once a highly successful businessman in the global fashion industry?
Before coaching, Cheika worked for high-profile Australian designer Colette Dinnigan before starting his own multi-million dollar fashion distribution business, with offices in Sydney, London and Paris. The son of a Lebanese migrant, Cheika speaks Arabic, Italian and French fluently. It is said he once had dinner in a group including Beyonce, but didn’t know who she was.
Australia’s propping ranks at the World Cup are a treasure trove of interesting back-stories – including two imports from New Zealand.
Sekope Kepu played no.8 for New Zealand schools before moving to Australia in 2008 and playing for the Wallabies, while Toby Smith won two Super Rugby titles for the Chiefs in New Zealand before using an Aussie passport (he spent the first two years of his life in Toowoomba) to switch sides of the Tasman.
Scott Sio’s father David, meanwhile, was a member of the Manu Samoa team that beat Wales in 1991 and then almost defeated eventual champions Australia.
And Greg Holmes set the record for the most days between Tests when he played in July. Having last been capped in 2007, Holmes’ wait for another Wallabies jersey was 2849 days.
Two Wallabies veterans have the chance to play their 100th Test matches at the Rugby World Cup. Captain Stephen Moore and playmaker Matt Giteau both sit on 96 Tests.
Until this year, Giteau would have thought playing 100 Tests was never going to happen. He left Australian rugby on 92 Tests in 2011 for France, but changes this year meant Giteau became eligible to play for the Wallabies again.
Adam Ashley-Cooper (108 Tests) became Australia’s sixth centurion last year – and having three in the same team at the 2015 Rugby World Cup would equal South Africa but still be behind New Zealand, who have four active centurions: Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Tony Woodcock and Kevin Mealamu, with Ma'a Nonu just short on 97 as well. James Haskell is England’s most capped player at the tournament on 60.
The Wallabies side boasts some interesting names. Will Genia, raised in Papua New Guinea as the son of a high-profile politician, was christened Sanchez Genia. He changed it when he went to school. Israel Folau’s first name means “Chosen One” but he was christened Isileli (which is the Tongan spelling). Sekope Kepu’s middle name is “Miami” and, no word of a lie, it is because his parents were huge fans of Miami Vice.
Keeping up with the Kuridranis
It will be a family affair for Wallabies outside centre Tevita Kuridrani at the World Cup. The Fijian-born centre is the first cousin of Nemani Nadolo, who was raised in Brisbane as well but now plays for Fiji and the Crusaders. Nadolo’s brother Chris, who plays for Queensland in Super Rugby, even goes by the Kuridrani surname.
The family hails from a small coastal village on Fiji’s Coral Coast called Namatakalua, which was also the former home of Lote Tuqiri, Fijian sevens star Sirilo Lala and former rugby league star Noa Nadruku, amongst others.
Izzy the best?
Israel Folau is regarded as one of the finest fullbacks in the world, if not the finest. But when he was growing up in the western Sydney suburbs, he and fellow park footy player Jarryd Hayne were teenage phenomenons in the National Rugby League and both have enjoyed successful code switches.
“Izzy” switched to Aussie Rules before finding rugby – but perhaps even he has to take back seat to his talented friend now making waves with his own code conversion.
Though he’d never played a game of American football, Hayne quit a million-dollar NRL contract, was signed by the San Francisco 49ers and after star efforts in trials, defied the odds to make the 49ers 53-man roster. The US media have been enthralled and he regularly appears on ESPN.