Fri, Oct 03, 2003 - Page 24 News List

Wallabies can't be counted out of the running for the Cup

AP , BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA

Australia has never been an overwhelming favorite to win a rugby union World Cup, yet the Wallabies are the only team to lift the trophy twice.

And so, with Australia hosting the sport's quadrennial showpiece in its own right for the first time, nothing much has changed in terms of who is supposed to win. Except the defending champion Wallabies are further down the pecking order.

Perennial favorite New Zealand, winner of the inaugural Cup in 1987, tops most ratings again and England, the most dominant nation north of the equator, heads the official rankings.

Ireland is ranked No. 3, much to the annoyance of the Aussies, who were dropped to No. 4.

One major shift though has been the mood of the Australian public, which struggles with the prospect of trans-Tasman rival New Zealand winning the World Cup in Sydney and can't bare even the suggestion of England winning Down Under.

Australians reveled when the Wallabies won two World Cups in Britain. Australian cricket and rugby league teams have dominated England for decades and, in February, the Socceroos upstaged the English at their national game with a 3-1 win in London.

Meanwhile, England beat the Wallabies twice on its 14-match winning stretch that ended last month when its understrength reserve XV lost 17-16 to France in Paris.

But it was the reverberations from the 25-14 at Melbourne in June, England's first test win on Australian soil in almost a century of meetings, that were most revealing.

Until then, Eddie Jones and his Wallabies had been given room to experiment with lineups and combinations with World Cup plans taking priority.

The nature of the Melbourne loss implored much closer scrutiny, and subsequent losses to New Zealand and South Africa in the Tri-Nations series further eroded confidence. In 1991 and 1999, when the Wallabies won titles in England and Wales, there had been an air of expectation surrounding the teams. Genuine match winners spearheaded each squad, with cool-headed flyhalf Michael Lynagh directing the backline and the eccentric David Campese weaving his magic on the wing, Australia had been given as good a chance as anyone of winning in '91.

A 12-6 win over England in the final at Twickenham was considered a reward for edging New Zealand in the semis and surviving a scare against Ireland in the quarterfinals.

Four years ago John Eales, a gangly rookie lock when the Wallabies first became world champions, led a team of seasoned campaigners to another triumph. Tim Horan, another survivor from '91, was peerless in midfield.

The scrums were strong and the forward pack gave those squads foundation.

The 2003 roster contains only one proven gamebreaker in injury-prone pivot Steve Larkham, one of 10 veterans of the last World Cup.

There's no depth in the front row, the back row has lost some punch in the absence of injured Toutai Kefu and Owen Finegan, and there's no long-established combinations across the field, except for the halves pairing of skipper George Gregan and Larkham.

The Wallabies were 3-4 in internationals this season, and have just one win in their last five matches.

"This year has always been about the World Cup," Gregan said. "We can't wait for Oct. 10. We've worked so hard and feel as though we're ready to play some really good rugby."

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