ODAWARA, Japan (Reuters) – An often maligned pack has so far gained most of the plaudits for an under-par Australia in the Rugby World Cup, and scrumhalf Nic White feels if the backs can raise their game to the forwards’ level, England has better watch out.
The Wallabies face a confident England, whose pack are one of the best in the tournament, in the first quarter-final in Oita on Saturday.
Few give Michael Cheika’s side much of a chance, following an indifferent pool phase in which the coach’s revolving-door selection policy for the back line has thus far failed to deliver a potent combination.
“There’s definitely more to come, as a team and as a backline. That’s the exciting bit,” said White, who plays his club rugby in England for last season’s Premiership runners-up Exeter Chiefs.
“That’s part of the confidence we’ve got as a group that we’re doing well but gee whizz when it does click we’re going to be a force to be reckoned with,” he told reporters.
The Wallabies struggled to overcome Fiji, Uruguay and Georgia, and lost 29-25 to Wales despite a storming second-half comeback, having trailed 23-8 at halftime.
But Australia’s forwards did raise their game when they had to, and without revealing too much about how they might play in the knockout phase.
In their first match against a rampant Fiji, they tightened up, narrowed the game, squeezed the Pacific islanders and seized control in the second half.
In the final match against Georgia, a side renowned for a strong pack, the Wallabies forwards dominated the collisions, the breakdown and set piece only for the backs to suffer cohesion issues.
Part of the problem may lie with Cheika having picked three different halfback combinations in the four Pool D games, and flyhalf Christian Leali’ifano suggested that could be an issue.
“We’re trying to focus on getting our best combinations that we feel will put our best game out there,” Leali’ifano said. “I don’t know if it’s a strength. There’s a few different combinations in there.”
While Cheika also has multiple options in his midfield, his preferred combination has been Samu Kerevi and James O’Connor, who have played three games together in Japan.
Tevita Kuridrani, in the first-choice midfield with Matt Giteau in the last World Cup, recognised he had probably dropped down the pecking order in Japan but it was all part of Cheika’s plan to select combinations depending on the opposition.
“We’ve been trying to work around the combinations, just trying to mix it up and see where we can take (on) the English side and defend against them,” Kuridrani said.
“.. They haven’t named a team yet so we don’t know what’s (happening).”
(Reporting by Greg Stutchbury in Tokyo; ; editing by John Stonestreet)