Wallabies seek World Cup salvation after horror year

Michael Cheika (AFP)
Michael Cheika (AFP)

Sydney - Australian rugby has endured a turbulent year overshadowed by superstar Israel Folau's controversial sacking and looming legal battle, with officials hoping the Rugby World Cup will divert attention back to the game.

Rugby Australia's decision to terminate the devout Christian fullback's four-year contract for posting homophobic comments online seemed like the right thing to do at the time.

But it sparked a backlash from supporters of free speech and religious expression, which has ultimately pitted the governing body and NSW Rugby against a cashed-up Folau in a court case that could prove costly.

Folau, one of the world's highest-profile players who will play no part in the World Cup, is seeking Aus$10 million for unfair dismissal from Rugby Australia, which returned to profit in 2018 but only after axing Super Rugby side Western Force.

Chairperson Cameron Clyne has warned of a financial loss in 2019 - a scenario that often plays out in a World Cup year when there are fewer home Tests - which could be a serious headache Folau wins a big payout.

The saga has put even more pressure on the Wallabies, who had a horror 2018 winning just four of 13 Tests and slumping to sixth in the world.

They need a deep run at the World Cup to refocus attention on the field and help recapture the sport's waning popularity in Australia.

Coach Michael Cheika, who survived the axe despite last year's miserable form, remains optimistic, pointing to the team's solid spirit amid the swirling off-field dramas.

"That camaraderie, I suppose, helps with being a bit more resilient," he said.

"There has been a lot happen off the field. A lot out there to test our resolve, not necessarily from us, but we get asked all the questions or the microscope comes on us.

"They've trained hard and been solid together and that's only going to continue going into the World Cup," he added.

John Eales, the last Wallabies captain to win the World Cup in 1999, said Australia getting their hands on the trophy again would go a long way to helping the public fall back in love with rugby, which endures an endless battle for attention with rugby league and Australian Rules.

"Winning just puts you on so many agendas because Australians love winners," he told the Daily Telegraph.

Doom and gloom scenarios have been painted in the media about the financial implications of the Folau court case and its impact on the game, which enjoyed growth across all formats in clubs and schools last year, led by women.

Chief executive Raelene Castle recently insisted Rugby Australia's finances were "fine", but also admitted legal fees had already taken a toll.

"This (court battle) won't stop us spending the money in the rugby community," she said.

"Probably the disappointing thing is we are spending money on legal fees that could otherwise have been spent additionally in helping the game grow in this country. But that is the reality of where we are."

There were fears that Folau's case may coincide with, and overshadow, the World Cup, but that at least was put to bed by a Melbourne court that set a trial date for February 4 next year if mediation in December is unsuccessful.

The Michael Hooper-led Wallabies - two-time World Cup winners and losing finalists in 2015 - have endured mixed fortunes so far this year, winning two and losing two.

But one of the victories was over the world champion All Blacks in Perth and George Gregan, who skippered Australia to the 2003 final and played at four World Cups, said that form proved Australia had what it takes.

"You need to be reproducing that form in Perth, which we know they have. It's nice to know they can produce," he said.

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