Australia’s upset loss to Ireland at the Rugby World Cup put the two-time champion on a course to face southern hemisphere rivals South Africa and New Zealand earlier than expected.
Instead of advancing to a likely quarterfinal against Wales, Samoa or Fiji as the Pool C winner, the Wallabies will probably now finish as runner-up and meet the defending champion Springboks in the last eight, according to bookmakers, who now favor Ireland to top the group after its 15-6 win at Auckland’s Eden Park two days ago.
“The good thing about this tournament is that we’re still in it,” Wallabies fly-half Quade Cooper said in a televised news conference in Auckland yesterday. “It’s just going to be a harder path now.”
Australia entered rugby’s four-yearly championship after winning its first Tri-Nations title since 2001 and was rated the second favorite to lift the Webb Ellis Cup behind host New Zealand. Bookmakers favored a New Zealand-Australia final on Oct. 23, a scenario reliant on both topping their pools.
While the Wallabies kept their status among oddsmakers’ as the most likely winner after the All Blacks, their odds have drifted. Australia is now a 7-1 chance with the U.K.’s William Hill Plc, having started the tournament as a 7-2 shot.
“They’ve made things pretty tough for themselves,” said Michael Sullivan, chief executive officer of Sportingbet Australia, which rates the Wallabies 6-1 to win the trophy. “They now potentially face South Africa in a quarterfinal and the All Blacks in a semi if they get through. It will take a monumental reversal of form for them even to make the final.”
‘Big and Significant’
No team has lost a pool match and gone on to win the World Cup in six previous editions. England reached the final in 1991 and 2007 after losing a group stage game.
“As big and significant as that loss was, we have to look forward,” Wallabies winger Drew Mitchell said today at a televised news conference. “We’re now in a position where we can do what no other team has done and that’s potentially win from second in our pool.”
If Ireland wins Pool C by beating Russia and Italy in its final two group games, it will meet the runner-up from Pool D in a quarterfinal in Wellington on Oct. 8. Samoa currently occupies second place with six points, three behind leader South Africa.
Top-ranked New Zealand leads Pool A with the maximum 10 points from its opening two games and is the favorite to advance to the last eight as the group winner.
By winning their group, the All Blacks would face the Pool B runner-up in the quarterfinals on Oct. 9 in Auckland. The tournament draw pits the winner of that match in a potential semifinal against Australia or South Africa.
The Wallabies, the 1991 and 1999 champions, face the U.S. on Sept. 23 before finishing group play against tournament newcomer Russia on Oct. 1.
Australia arrived in New Zealand with the youngest 30-man squad at an average age of 25 years and 363 days. Ireland has the oldest roster of the 20 nations, averaging over 29, and had lost all four of its tune-up Test matches last month.
The Irish, who beat the U.S. 22-10 in their opener, dominated Australia in the contact areas and denied Wallabies playmakers Will Genia and Cooper the time and space to launch regular attacks. Jonathan Sexton kicked two penalties and a drop goal and Ronan O’Gara booted six points for Ireland. The Wallabies were restricted to two penalties from James O’Connor.
“There’s no doubt it was an education, particularly for a number of players who are in their first World Cup,” Wallabies coach Robbie Deans said. “We have to learn more if we’re going to push on and achieve anything that we hope.”
Australia captain James Horwill, who said his team had played “dumb footy,” welcomed the six-day turnaround.
“We’ve got to get on with the job because it’s not over yet,” he said. “We need to stay tight and focus on improving. We need to learn from experiences like this.”
Deans added that the Wallabies will concentrate their energies on what’s immediately in front of them, rather than potential matchups in the knockout stages.
“Those things are unfolding, we won’t waste one second contemplating it,” he said. “We have to earn that right firstly ourselves.”