Championship preview: Australia

Date published: July 14 2015

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We preview each of the team's prospects ahead of the upcoming Rugby Championship. Next up, it's Michael Cheika's Wallabies.

Will Australia manage a repeat of their Tri-Nations success in the last World Cup season or will the struggles of Australia's Super Rugby franchises be felt at Test level? It's been a while since the Wallabies were this unsettled heading into a season, with the new selection policy offering a chance for Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell to make their international returns. The question is, will Australia have enough up front to compete with the best in the Rugby Championship.

Last Year: It kicked off with a tryless 12-12 draw at home to New Zealand, and while that ended the All Blacks' win streak, it was little reward after playing 20 minutes with an extra man. They were hammered in the return fixture 51-20 before two hard-fought home wins over South Africa (24-23) and Argentina (32-25). A collapse in Cape Town saw them throw away a two-point lead with 11 minutes to go before going down 28-10, and the week that followed was marred by the Kurtley Beale textgate controversy that eventually led to Ewen McKenzie resigning. To make matters worse, the Wallabies became the first team to lose to Argentina (21-17) in the Rugby Championship on the final weekend, going down despite taking an early 14-0 lead.

This year: The draw has certainly fallen kindly for the Wallabies, who host both South Africa and New Zealand, with a trip to Argentina in between. That could be a poisoned chalice though, with no fixture Australia would expect to win comfortably. The form of Australia's Super Rugby franchises is a concern, with only the Waratahs and Brumbies really performing, and even then, they were both comfortably beaten in the semi-finals. The Reds and Force were two of the poorest teams in the tournament, although the Rebels produced some good rugby at times. With no warm-up game it's hard to know what to predict from Australia, but they don't inspire a huge amount of confidence as it stands.

Key Players: Stephen Moore was handed the captaincy, and it was a sensible choice, especially given the Brumbies hooker is probably the most certain of his place in the entire team. He barely lasted a minute before tearing his ACL last time he led Australia, so hopefully it works out better for him this time. At his best, he is one of the top two or three hookers in the world.

In the backline, it seems fair to say that if Australia are to be dangerous, Israel Folau needs to be at his best, which arguably wasn't the case during Super Rugby. The former league star was still one of the best full-backs in the competition, but his linebreaking and counter-attacking wasn't quite as incisive this season, and the try-scoring fell off as well. There is a huge amount of talent in the Wallaby backline though, so he may well rediscover his best form pretty quickly.

Players to watch: One of the most intriguing questions about Australia will be how Michael Cheika decides to line up his back row. In Michael Hooper and David Pocock, he has two of the best openside flankers in the world, and two very different players. It would certainly be tempting to play both of them, even if Cheika is a big fan of Scott Fardy. Whoever gets the nod will have to perform though, with a world class alternative itching to get a chance.

Aside from the openside battle, we simply can't wait to see what Matt Giteau can do on his return to the Test stage. Toulon's standout player in 2013 and 2014, Giteau had a tougher time of it this year because of a groin injury that kept him out for long periods. His best displays for Toulon have probably come at inside centre, and his potential combination with Quade Cooper could be deadly. Has this call-up come a season too late though?

Prospects: Probably the hardest team to predict, with no warm-up games and a very unsettled side. Australia have a great record at home to South Africa, especially in Brisbane. Win that one, and they might be able to challenge for the title, but it wouldn't be a huge shock if they finished winless either. We'll go for one win and third place overall.

Fixtures:

Sat, 18 July v South Africa (Brisbane)
Sat, 25 July v Argentina (Mendoza)
Sat, 8 August v New Zealand (Sydney)

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