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Rugby Championship: Australia under pressure as Cheika puts his job on the line

Minus two of their superstars for different reasons and with a defiant coach facing an uncertain future, it is tough to know quite what to expect from Australia in the Rugby Championship.

What is clear, however, is that the Wallabies will be pleased to have seen the back of 2018, when Michael Cheika’s side won just four of their 13 Tests.

A dismal year began with a series defeat on home soil to Ireland, included a first loss to Argentina in their own backyard since 1983 and climaxed with a 37-18 thumping at Twickenham against Eddie Jones’ England.

As if results were not bad enough, off-field issues have left them without key components.

Israel Folau, one of the team’s leading names and a certainty for the Rugby World Cup, had his contract terminated by Rugby Australia following anti-homosexual posts on social media. A hearing in May found him guilty of a high-level breach of the governing body’s code of conduct, just three months after he had signed a lucrative long-term deal to remain in rugby union.

“The World Cup is a big target of mine this year and I believe this Wallabies group can go a long way if we keep on improving,” Folau said at the time his contract news was made official. Now, the rugby league convert is in a dispute with his former employers for unfair dismissal.

While Folau is set for a court battle, David Pocock faces a fight of a different kind after cutting short his Super Rugby career in the hope of recovering from a calf injury in time to feature at the World Cup.

Australia’s hopes of glory in Japan looked bleak at the start of 2019; with their try-scoring full-back no longer an option and their talismanic flanker stuck on the sidelines, they must quickly regroup and work out a way to prosper in a shortened Championship campaign that begins in South Africa on Saturday.

Cheika has increased the pressure on his own shoulders by reiterating in the build-up to the game that he will walk away if they are not crowned world champions in Yokohama on November 2.

“I know most people would think that’s a pipe dream but we don’t,” he told the media ahead of the clash with a Springboks squad seemingly keeping their powder dry ahead of facing New Zealand in round two, judging by their team selection for the opener.

“We came second last time and if we come first next time I will have earned the right to stay on as the coach and if I don’t then someone else earns the opportunity. I think that’s fair.”

Fair? It feels more like a giant leap of faith for a man who appears ready to jump before he is pushed. They are words of either a man who retains faith despite results, or who knows a line in the sand needs to be drawn.

Still, recent history offers hope for Australia.

They won the last shortened Championship in 2015, opening up against South Africa before securing the title by beating New Zealand at home (the same run of games they have this year, too). Nic White was the hero in the decider, contributing 10 points in the closing minutes to complete a remarkable rally from the hosts in Sydney.

Scrum-half White played in just one more Test but is back from a successful stint in England, as is also the case with James O’Connor, who last represented his country in 2013. James Slipper, meanwhile, is another familiar face to earn a recall, while Christian Lealiifano has overcome leukaemia to return to the international fold. Cheika will hope they can fill the gaps – other, less optimistic types may suggest the selections are just adding old deckchairs to the Titanic.

Slipper was the only one of the quartet who was involved in the last Rugby World Cup final, the replacement prop unable to stop the All Blacks prevailing. While their trans-Tasman rivals are expected to reach the same stage again in Japan, a repeat appears a long shot for this current version of Australia.

For Cheika, it is win or bust. After a torrid 2018, this year will either end in glory with the Webb Ellis Cup, or be the start of a huge rebuild under a new head coach.

KEO.co.za News wire is powered by opta

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