SYDNEY – Australia head coach Michael Cheika sprung a couple of surprises with the announcement of his 31-man World Cup squad, with Quade Cooper making the cut and former skipper James Horwill missing out. Despite playing an important role in the Wallabies winning The Rugby Championship in the run-up to the World Cup, Horwill has been forced to settle for a place on Australia’s 10-man training squad where he’ll be waiting to see whether an injury opened the door for a return. For Cooper, the versatile back makes the party despite a couple of disappointing performances over the past couple of months, earning his seat on the plane to the USA and then England alongside Bernard Foley as the two five-eighth picks in this Australian World Cup squad.
While Brumbies half-back Nic White was also another notable absentee from Cheika’s 31-man group, it is the omission of Horwill that has really raised some eyebrows in Australia. With 58 caps to his name, the second-rower was expected to make the cut, especially after an impressive string of displays against South Africa, Argentina and a New Zealand team heading into the World Cup with odds as short as 13/10 with 32Red and Unibet to defend their crown. Cheika admitted it had been a tough decision to make but instead opted for Kane Douglas, Dean Mumm, Rob Simmons and Will Skelton as his second row options. White missed out in favour of Nick Phipps and Will Genia, with Matt Giteau providing cover for the duo should something happen to the scrum halves.
Australia are off for the States where they will finalise their plans before setting off for England for the start of the tournament, taking on the USA Eagles in Chicago. From there, the Wallabies will head off for England, where they will need to be on their best form after being drawn in what could be the toughest pool in the competition. After starting their campaign with a tricky clash against Fiji, the Aussies then take on South American sde Uruguay before make-or-break ties against hosts England and then Wales to wrap up the group, knowing a top two place will only be good enough to reach the quarter-finals. Currently priced at around 15/2 with 32Red to win this year’s World Cup, there are a host of teams expected to be stronger than Australia in this tournament, and this squad know they will have some doubters to silence over the next couple of months.
The two-time World Cup winners haven’t failed to make it out of the group stages in their history, and Cheika will be under no illusions that his job could depend on maintaining that run this year. While Fiji will be their usual exciting selves, on the surface it looks as though it’s going to be between Australia, England and Wales for those top-two places in a Pool A that is going to attract a lot of early interest during the opening few weeks of the tournament. The Wallabies’ recent Rugby Championship success will have given the whole squad a huge amount of confidence heading into the World Cup, but that will all be for nothing if they aren’t still involved by the time the quarter-finals begin.
With Horwill left at home, the captaincy has been given to veteran hooker Stephen Moore, with Adam Ashley-Cooper and Michael Hooper serving as vice captains during the tournament. There is a strong emphasis on experience throughout this squad, with Cheika’s favourites Isreal Folau, Quade Cooper, David Pocock and James Slipper helping the group’s official leaders both on and off the pitch. With over 1200 combined caps in this 31-man squad, Cheika won’t be short of experience, but it hasn’t stopped the Aussie boss naming 13 World Cup debutants in his squad, with Toby Smith earning the first international call-up of his career.
Despite a number of criticisms made towards this squad, the reaction Down Under has been mainly positive regarding Cheika’s squad, and there are some who feel the Wallabies are being overlooked by some areas of the rugby world heading into this World Cup. Providing they can make it into the quarter-finals, there is a good chance this squad could shock a few people on their way to lifting the Webb Ellis Trophy for a third time.