July 16 (Reuters) - Factbox on Australia ahead of the southern hemisphere’s Rugby Championship:
World ranking: 6
Last year: 3rd
Coach: Michael Cheika
Captain: Michael Hooper
Australia enter the Rugby Championship under massive pressure after a terrible 2018 season that produced only four wins from 13 matches and sparked a chorus of condemnation from disgruntled fans.
Optimism has hardly returned through a largely gloomy off-season in which only one Australian team — the ACT Brumbies — qualified for the Super Rugby playoffs and the termination of fullback Israel Folau robbed coach Michael Cheika of one of his few world class players.
A serious calf injury has placed master ball-poacher David Pocock under a cloud, while the selection of 35-year-old utility back Adam Ashley-Cooper in a 34-man squad for the opening test against South Africa points to a concerning lack of depth.
For all that, fans will hope Cheika can engineer a miracle turnaround as he did four years ago when the Wallabies dug themselves out of a similar funk to win the abridged 2015 tournament then make the final of the World Cup in England.
To that end, South Africa have offered a willing hand by resting nearly half of their squad for the Johannesburg opener, giving the Wallabies a flicker of hope they can win at Ellis Park for the first time since 1963.
A victory, however unconvincing, would set the Wallabies up nicely for the second clash against Argentina on home soil and a kind draw has given them the luxury of another home game against the champion All Blacks.
Yet a loss to the Boks, however gallant, could deal a crushing blow for confidence.
The addition of Scott Johnson and Michael O’Connor in a newly minted selection panel has seen some of Cheika’s old favourites jettisoned, and the competiton for World Cup spots should at least deliver willing performances.
Yet there is much that seems half-baked about the squad’s preparations, with Cheika’s staff only finalised three weeks ago with the naming of attack coach Shaun Berne.
While writing off the Wallabies has made fools of many through the years, backing the current squad to win the Rugby Championship appears a greater folly.
Forwards - Allan Alaalatoa, Rory Arnold, Jack Dempsey, Folau Fainga’a, Michael Hooper (capt), Luke Jones, Sekope Kepu, Tolu Latu, Isi Naisarani, Tom Robertson, Izack Rodda, Rob Simmons, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Scott Sio, James Slipper, Taniela Tupou, Jordan Uelese, Rob Valetini, Liam Wright
Backs - Adam Ashley-Cooper, Tom Banks, Kurtley Beale, Bernard Foley, Will Genia, Dane Haylett-Petty, Reece Hodge, Samu Kerevi, Marika Koroibete, Tevita Kuridrani, Christian Lealiifano, Jack Maddocks, Joe Powell, Matt Toomua, Nic White
FIXTURES (kickoff GMT)
Jul. 20 v South Africa, Johannesburg (1505)
Jul. 27 v Argentina, Brisbane (0945)
Aug. 10 v New Zealand, Perth (0945) (Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Sudipto Ganguly)