Crucial World Cup year set to make or break Australian rugby

first_imgThis year will be a year of living dangerously in which Australian men’s rugby will either begin to recover lost ground on and off the field or slip further towards minor sports status. And it is performances on the pitch in 2019 which will be the key to a turnaround in fortunes; the Wallabies, and the nation’s four Super Rugby franchises, must improve markedly to win back disillusioned fans.Australia’s rugby administrators must astutely manage whatever success these five elite professional teams achieve to increase the revenue streams to fund the grassroots, the lifeblood of the code. If the Wallabies, Brumbies, Rebels, Waratahs and Reds fail to deliver again, the game will be in a weak position to renegotiate a lucrative broadcast deal, with potentially dire consequences. Ideally, if two Australian teams reached the playoffs, they would contain the bulk of the Wallabies squad. Super Rugby playoff action would help to keep the Wallabies match-fit and prepare them for the Bledisloe Cup and the Rugby Championship, which will lead into the World Cup.Coming off their worst season since 1958, no one gives the seventh-ranked Wallabies much hope of coming away from Japan with the Webb Ellis Cup, but no one thought they would do well in 2015 when they reached the final.With the departure of Wallabies attack coach Stephen Larkham, head coach Michael Cheika will do it his way. Australian fans will be hoping he can reproduce what he did in 2015. This time, the Wallabies need to reach the semi-finals at least – and preferably the final – to convince Australian supporters they have something to cheer about again. Support for Australian rugby has not vanished. It is just lying dormant. It is time to awaken. … we have a small favour to ask. More people are reading and supporting The Guardian’s independent, investigative journalism than ever before. 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Under the competition’s conference system, the winner of the Australian conference is guaranteed a place in the playoffs, regardless of the team’s position on the overall table, but it is vitally important that at least two Australian teams participate in post-season play, not just for Super Rugby’s sake, but for the sake of the Wallabies.The last time two Australian teams – the Brumbies and the Waratahs – reached the playoffs was 2015 and it was not coincidental that the Wallabies made the final of the World Cup that same year. Those two teams are the only Australian clubs to appear in the playoffs since 2014.And the Waratahs are probably Australia’s best chance this year. NSW have managed to retain the bulk of the squad that reached the semi-finals last season and has added a wildcard in code-hopper Karmichael Hunt, who was unwanted by the Reds.In the absence of a big forward pack, the Waratahs will need to compete for possession at the breakdown across the field from No 1 to No 15. But the real key to the success of the Waratahs will be the performance of the quintessential quartet of Michael Hooper, Bernard Foley, Kurtley Beale and Israel Folau.The Brumbies are trying to balance their strong set-pieces and rolling maul with expansive back play. If they can achieve that combination, they will be competitive. Any team which features David Pocock deserves to be respected. Pocock is the most valuable player in Australia and his sheer presence will make the Brumbies a force to be reckoned with, but the backrower has suffered recurring neck injuries and he must be managed properly.Although one of rugby union’s two heartland states, Queensland have not reached the playoffs since 2013. Coach Brad Thorn has worked hard on the Reds’ set-pieces and defence, but their attack has left something to be desired. The return to Ballymore of former Reds attack coach Jim McKay may help to fix that problem. They played a brilliant brand of attacking rugby when they won the title in 2011, but McKay then had the benefit of halves Will Genia and Quade Cooper running the show.Genia and Cooper have re-united at the Rebels, who now have a talented squad that threatens to usurp Australia’s traditional rugby powers. But the Rebels are a conundrum: Melbourne have a strong team on paper, but has not yet developed a strong grassroots foundation. This means the Rebels would be unable to fully capitalise commercially on any success they achieved on the field. Yet, if the Rebels are unsuccessful on the field, they run the risk of experiencing the same financial problems that threatened their existence just a few years ago. 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