World Cup Preview: Australia

Group C Opposition: Ireland, Italy, USA, Russia

Pedigree: More than respectable – took Bill home in 1991 and 1999, each time the outstanding team in the competition. Dragged to the final in 2003 (and almost won it) by their outstanding half-back combination – George Gregan’s refrain of “Four more years mate” in the semi will freeze Kiwi blood for a very long time.

Players to watch: [WoC Ed: Just look at the age of these lads …] Gregan’s spiritual successor Will Genia (23) is the man who makes the Wallabies tick, although it’s Quade Cooper (23) who gets the headlines – though, with footwork like he has, its kind of deserved. Outside them you have the similarly talented Kurtley Beale (22) and James O’Connor (21). All 4 won’t even be at their peak until 2019 – be afraid, be very afraid.

Good Tournament: This time last year, a semi-final may have been acceptable. After keeping pace with NZ throughout last season, followed by the Reds Super Rugby success this year, its looks like a final appearance is the minimum requirement.

Bad Tournament: Being put out by any team that doesn’t copy that funny pre-match dance Munster patented in 2008.

Prospects: After throwing their toys out of the pram following an Andrew Sheridan-inspired destruction in 2007, Australia paradoxically managed to get running rugby banned by the IRB for 2 years. Luckily, everyone saw sense, and the emasculation of Morne Steyn has coincided with an upturn in Aussie fortunes, helped, of course, by the emerging talent mentioned above.

Robbie Deans has patiently been building towards this tournament for a while – as recently as 2009, they only won one Tri-Nations match. In that tournament, Deans blooded some of the players that now backbone his team, included Cooper, O’Connor, Genia, David Pocock and Ben Alexander.

From 6 back, they have a huge amount of options – even captain Rocky Elsom is under serious pressure for his place from the superb Scott Higginbotham, whose Tri-Nations appearances off the bench have been outstanding. And in the back division, they have piles of creativity and danger – as we write, Matt Giteau can’t make the 22, and Berrick Barnes’ un-retirement is a footnote. The problems lie further forward. Like Ireland, they have only two props who can scrummage, and Deans has found it difficult to settle on a hooker and second row combination – they can occasionally get mauled up front, and there are only so many times you can turn that around.

In a tournament like this, there is always a requirement to tough out games, particularly at the business end, which may not suit the Wallabies – the semi-final against England or France already looks like a flashing warning light. Despite the advancement in the last two years, 2015 is probably a more realistic target.

Verdict: They should beat Ireland, and will have to dig deep to negotiate a very tricky semi-final (especially if France click), but New Zealand will be a bridge too far. Beaten finalists.