The savage blow of losing star duo David Pocock and Israel Folau will not be a death knell for the Wallabies World Cup campaign, with assistant coach Stephen Larkham saying they’ve brought in world class players to replace the pair.
Folau and Pocock were given until Friday’s team naming for Sunday’s quarter-final with Scotland to prove their fitness, but failed to convince coaching staff they’d overcome ankle and calf complaints respectively.
A despondent Folau limped from the field after a failed fitness test, while Pocock was unable to even get that far.
Losing both your best forward and most potent back would have crippled Wallabies teams of previous years, but the team is confident in what replacements Kurtley Beale and Ben McCalman would bring for the clash at Twickenham on Sunday (Monday 0200 AEDT).
“Izzy is a special player, but if you’ve looked at the tournament so far Kurtley has had a number of chances to impress and he’s certainly done that,” assistant coach Stephen Larkham said.
“We’re losing a world class player but we’re gaining a world class player.”
The loss of Pocock – an outstanding ball-hunter who leads the tournament in turnovers with ten and is among the Wallabies’ top three for tackles, carries over the gainline and offloads – is somewhat offset by the return of fellow specialist No.7 and vice-captain Michael Hooper from suspension.
However, as the star of the pool stages following his transition from openside flanker to standout No.8, Pocock’s absence is an enormous blow to Australia’s chances of reaching the final four at the tournament.
Larkham said Pocock was desperate to get on the field but the risk of him aggravating his calf injury was too great – even if the Wallabies weren’t looking any further down the track than this weekend.
Though no thought was being given to sending for replacements at this stage, indicating the pair would likely be fit to face either Argentina or Ireland in a semi-final next week, should they defeat Scotland.
“That’s the goal,” Larkham said when asked if Pocock would be fit next week.
“We’re certainly hoping he’ll be right on the back of having a couple of days off this week.”
Despite the loss, coach Michael Cheika backed McCalman to step up to the task as he has done throughout the World Cup so far, which included a brace of tries against Uruguay.
The Western Force star’s brilliant cameo off the bench in the victory over Wales, where the Wallabies stoically defended their own line for a 13 minute period which included seven minutes with two men sin-binned, sealed his place ahead of young gun Sean McMahon, who had started at No.7 against Wales.
“(Against Wales) he didn’t go on when we were down numbers, he was out there and we went down numbers,” Cheika said.
“He knew he was fresher so he lifted himself and his work off the ball to cover one-and-a-half spots if he could in the defensive line.”
Folau has been hampered since rolling his ankle against England a fortnight ago and played through pain against Wales, but despite showing improvements early in the week it was felt he shouldn’t be risked.
Quade Cooper joins the bench to cover five-eighth and fullback, and will be tasked with replicating the energy Beale has brought this tournament.
“Coming off the bench is a different role for him but we’re not expecting anything except what he’s delivered for the last three or four games,” Larkham said.
“That consistency and pushing the team around the paddock the way it needs to be pushed around the paddock.
“He’s deserved his spot.”