Firing full-back Israel Folau sent Rugby Australia into turmoil at the start of this season, depriving the national team of its undisputed star and triggering a costly court battle.
The termination of Folau’s contract for breaching the union’s social media protocols overshadowed all other rugby news Down Under, until a record 47-26 win over the All Blacks in Perth on 10 August suggested that the Wallabies weren’t in terminal decline.
A resounding 36-0 thumping from the All Blacks in the return game at Auckland brought the Wallabies back down to earth, and the World Cup is set to begin in Japan with the two-time champions and four-time finalists ranked sixth in the world behind Pool D rival Wales.
Michael Cheika took over a team in turmoil in October 2014 after Ewen McKenzie’s sudden resignation as coach amid an off-field player controversy and disharmony within the squad. And despite losing three of his first four Tests in charge, he guided the Wallabies to the World Cup final 12 months later and picked up a Rugby Championship title along the way.
In doing so, he shaped a line-up that had been struggling for cohesion into a tight unit for the tournament.
The four-year cycle between the World Cups has been up and down for the Wallabies, who now have dropped to a winning rate of roughly 50 per cent with Cheika at the helm. But the campaigning-style environment of a World Cup is suited to Cheika, and he’s confident his squad can do it again.
“This is the closest I’ve seen the team from a camaraderie point of view since I’ve been involved,” Cheika said in a TV interview after a warm-up win over Samoa in Sydney. “To go through some of the things we’ve had to go through off the field – that tests you.
“We’ve been able to come out the other side. This is a very solid group, and they’re eager to make the country proud of us.”
Warren Gatland, meanwhile, has achieved almost everything during his tenure as Wales coach over the past 12 years. Four Six Nations titles, including three Grand Slams. A national-record winning streak of 14 matches. And a place at the top of the world rankings for the first time in the rugby-mad country’s history, even if it was for only a week.
Throw in his success as head coach of the British and Irish Lions – a series win in Australia in 2013 followed by a drawn series against the All Blacks in 2017 – and there’s only really one major feat that has proved beyond Gatland since taking the Welsh reins in December 2007. And that’s winning the Rugby World Cup.
The 2019 edition in Japan offers the New Zealander one last chance before he returns home to Hamilton to coach the Chiefs in Super Rugby.
“There’s a really special place in my heart for Wales,” Gatland said. “I think we’ve massively overachieved in the last 12 years. And we’re not finished yet.”