MELBOURNE (Reuters) – A scrappy win over Italy has all but ensured coach Michael Cheika will guide the Wallabies to a second World Cup but the former Randwick enforcer has more immediate headaches before the season-ending clash against England.
With the Wallabies having slumped to an eighth loss in 11 tests against Wales the week before, a first ever defeat to the Azzurri would have been more than enough justification for Rugby Australia to swing the axe, even with 10 months left before the global showpiece in Japan.
Instead, the 26-7 victory over Conor O’Shea’s Italy in Padua – as unconvincing as it was – has given Cheika and the Wallabies breathing space before they head to Twickenham to take on Eddie Jones’s England.
Cheika and his men will need every inch of it.
Number eight David Pocock is nursing another pain in the neck, two months he was forced to miss the Rugby Championship clash against South Africa with a separate neck strain.
The loss of Australia’s most fearless breakdown warrior would be a massive blow for the Wallabies, who have lost their last five straight to Jones’s side.
Cheika will be reluctant to risk Pocock, however, given his importance to the side’s World Cup hopes and his recent neck problems.
“He’s obviously got a pretty nasty stinger on his neck,” Cheika said post-match.
“It was giving him the burns down the arm for quite a while. We’ll just wait and see what happens and see how he recovers over the next couple of days.”
Pocock’s loss would further upset a back row that has struggled to settle on a blindside flanker since Scott Fardy’s departure after the 2016 season.
New South Wales loose forward Ned Hanigan has failed to nail down the position and his replacement Jack Dempsey, a driving force in the back row last season, is also struggling since coming back from a serious hamstring injury last month.
Laughing off doubts over his coaching future, Cheika shook up the Wallabies starting side against the Azzurri and to his players’ credit, they gelled well enough to score four tries and defended stoutly to restrict Italy to one.
Yet, as against Wales, the problems lay with ball in hand, and they continued to squander scoring opportunities with unfathomable handling errors and mindless passing.
Cheika’s failure to settle on a playmaking axis so late in the World Cup cycle remains another major worry.
He can at least be assured that Bernard Foley is no inside centre. Playing in the position against Italy, the regular flyhalf resembled a polar bear lost in the Sahara desert and gifted the Azzurri their only try with an errant pass.
His replacement at number 10, Matt Toomua put in a willing if unspectacular display to at least give Cheika some assurance of having a solid understudy to Foley at the World Cup.
More heartening for Wallabies fans was the successful return of veteran utility Adam Ashley-Cooper.
The man nicknamed “Mr Fix-it” slotted in for his first test in 27 months with a typically industrious display on the wing, boosting his case for selection against England.
Showing impressive pace for a 34-year-old in his 117th test, he had a hand in both of winger Marika Koroibete’s two first half tries, and set up the second with deft footwork and a brilliant off-load.
Hard up against the touch-line, it was a piece of vintage Ashley-Cooper and a reminder of the poise and inspiration that Australia has lacked in attack for much of the past two years. “He’s definitely in the mix (for England),” said Cheika.