Sapporo (Japan) (AFP) – Wallabies coach Michael Cheika has insisted he will be proud of his team “wherever the cards fall” at the Rugby World Cup after Rugby Australia chief executive Raelene Castle raised the stakes by saying she expected them to reach the final.
Cheika took Australia all the way to the final of the 2015 edition in England before they lost to New Zealand at Twickenham.
Australia’s victory over New Zealand in Perth last month has raised hopes they can go one better in Japan and add to their 1991 and 1999 World Cup titles.
Despite New Zealand turning the tables to beat Australia in emphatic fashion a week later in Auckland, Castle said she was confident the Wallabies could at least match their feat from four years ago.
“When your previous performance was a World Cup final, that is everyone’s expectation,” she told the Sydney Morning Herald in comments published Thursday, despite mixed fortunes so far this year for the Wallabies, who have won three and lost two of their five Tests to date in 2019.
But when Cheika was asked by AFP in Sapporo on Thursday if Castle’s remarks had created extra pressure for him and the team, replied: “You should know me well enough by now that there’s not much pressure.
“I love what I do and am prepared to take responsibility and accountability, always have been for everything I do,” he added, after announcing his team to play Fiji in their opening game in Sapporo on Saturday.
Following a horror year in 2018, when the Wallabies won just four of 13 Tests, slumping to sixth in the world, doing well in Japan is seen as critical to winning back support for the 15-a-side code in Australia.
Rugby union endures an endless battle for attention with rugby league and Australian Rules, and has been overshadowed this year by superstar Israel Folau’s controversial sacking for homophobic comments and his looming legal battle with Rugby Australia.
He is seeking Aus $10 million (US $6.8 million) for unfair dismissal — a major potential headache for Rugby Australia, which has warned of a financial loss in 2019.
– ‘Ready for the battle’ –
Cheika appeared to be referring to the extra burdens carried by his side as a result of the Folau furore when he said: “We do our absolute best and wherever the cards fall, I’ll be absolutely proud of my team. They’ve put in so much work so far against a background of pressure from off the field, not on it.
“They’ve stood tall and they’ve worked hard through it. They’ve copped plenty (of criticism) and they are ready for the battle.”
He added: “I am not being judged by anyone else’s markers except myself and you know that I am coming here to win with our team.
Castle acknowledged a deep run into Japan was important for rugby union in Australia, and that the Wallabies must build on any momentum in the years ahead.
“The people that watch golf majors and tennis majors and football World Cups, they watch the Rugby World Cup,” she said.
“That means our viewing audiences and our fans and sports fans across Australia get to know the Wallabies, get to know the coaching staff, get to know the back stories, that’s a really great opportunity for us.
“What we need is consistent Wallabies performances and the team winning consistently. I know that is something everyone in the organisation is working towards,” she added.