James Slipper may not have given a spare thought to the World Cup, but his coach has.
Ewen McKenzie knows that Tuesday marks one year until the Wallabies’ opening match of one of the toughest world-cup campaigns they will face in more than a decade.
With a clash against Fiji at Millennium Stadium in Cardiff on September 23, they will kick off a monumental battle to make it out alive from the pool of death. England and Wales await them on home turf, as well as either Uruguay or Russia, with only two of the five moving into the knockout stages.
Slipper, one of Australia’s vice-captains, can see it on the horizon, but with two crucial away games against the Springboks and Pumas bearing down on the side, it is left to McKenzie to think about the medium term.
“The players understand – everyone understands – you’ve had 14 test matches and a Barbarians game this year to be able to push your claims,” the Wallabies coach said.
“Next year we have four Test matches to be able to. In that sense it is an important year now for people to show what they have got.
“Injuries with players who haven’t been able to make themselves available to be chosen has been not problematic, but it has exposed other people to the opportunity to show what they have got.”
Slipper conceded the Rugby Championship was the All Blacks’ “to lose”, but for an Australian team struggling to convince its fans it would have contender status in 12 months’ time, a drought-breaking win in Cape Town this weekend would go a long way.
“It’s just important for us to keep our minds on the immediate goal, and that’s this trip,” he said.
“We’re a team that hasn’t travelled too well in the past, but it’s a good opportunity for us to set a goal and reach it.
“Keep that momentum, keep winning, we obviously want to play our game and play it well. We want to concentrate on ourselves, is where we’re at at the moment.
It has been 22 years since the Wallabies have won at Newlands Stadium. They flew to South Africa on Monday without several key players, including hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau and winger Henry Speight, but are not the only side with injuries.
The Springboks have drafted veteran Schalk Burger from Japan after injuries to back-rower Francois Louw and back-up Siya Kolisi, and are also low on halfbacks.
The stakes are high. The victor on Saturday claims the No.2 ranking behind New Zealand.
“We want to be the best team in the world and we have a bit of room for improvement to get there,” Slipper said.
“We’re under no illusions that there’s going to be a lot of hard work and a lot of tough games in front of us; it’s just about making sure we put our best foot forward and turn up for every contest.”
With the World Cup in mind, captain Michael Hooper wants the side to get better at winning the tight ones and purge itself of a worrying tendency to fade at the end of Test matches.
“The pool we are in, things are going to occur there – you are not going to win by 20 or 30 points. It’s not going to happen. The way we have won the last two weeks – to grind out wins – is a really strong point,” Hooper said.
“Previously, a couple of times this year, we have put 50 points on world-class teams. So there is the ability to score tries there.
“Something I would like to see develop is improving as the game goes on. It happened a bit in the South African game, it didn’t in the Argentinian game.
“With all the good teams you see, the scores are pretty even going into the first half – and then they score tries, they get the better at the back end of a game. That is what I would like to see.”
* Georgina Robinson, SMH