Former All Blacks skipper Sean Fitzpatrick has hailed coach Michael Cheika’s transformation of the Wallabies and believes the two-time champions are good enough to win a third Rugby World Cup.
World No.2 Australia are the only major nation yet to play in the competition with their long-awaited opening fixture taking place against Fiji in Cardiff on Wednesday (early Thursday morning AEST).
Despite being in the toughest pool of the competition with England, Wales and Fiji, Fitzpatrick expects the Wallabies to not only reach the semi-finals but potentially go all the way.
“I think Cheika has done an amazing job turning them around from where they were under Ewen McKenzie and they are serious threats,” Fitzpatrick told AAP at a Laureus-supported activities communities network event in London.
“They’re in a very tough pool and if they can get out of it, which I think they can, they are going to be real contenders.”
It was the performance of Cheika’s side in the Rugby Championship that most impressed Fitzpatrick – in particular the dramatic win over the All Blacks in Sydney that helped them finish in top spot.
“I thought they were very smart, and I still look at that game in Sydney and think New Zealand were looking at other things looking ahead to the World Cup,” he said.
“They didn’t go to the rucks and (Michael) Hooper and (David) Pocock had an absolute field day and undid the All Blacks there.
“The All Blacks were using a rush defence system which works quite well in terms of using a lot of guys rushing into defence rather than throwing guys into the breakdown.
“Australia definitely got something out of it and Cheika was very clever because he knew they would never go to Eden Park and win the next week given the backlash from the All Blacks, and pulled six guys out.”
Although he expects the Wallabies to qualify along with England, Fitzpatrick believes facing the hosts and an injury-depleted Wales side in their final two pool games is not ideal.
“I do think they would like one really tough game and not two and that is going to take a bit out of them,” he said.
“This is what Wales is going to find. They face England on Saturday and then have a four-day turnaround to play Fiji who traditionally play very well against them.
“What is (Wales coach) Warren Gatland going to do? Is he going to put his best 15 out on Saturday and then rest them five days later?
“Or do they risk playing them full strength and maybe pick up more injuries?
“Then they have a nine-day turnaround to play Australia who they have a horrible record against. It’s going to be tough for them.”