MELBOURNE (Reuters) - World Cup ambitions will hang heavy over all sides in Super Rugby this year but arguably none more so than champions New South Wales, whose coach Michael Cheika must steer the Waratahs title defence while planning for the Wallabies.
After guiding the Waratahs to their maiden title, Cheika was hastily appointed Australia coach last October after Ewen McKenzie quit with the national team in turmoil.
Cheika now finds himself in the unique position of managing his own Wallaby-laden team through a gruelling season while keeping tabs on the other World Cup hopefuls in Australia’s four other provincial teams.
“I’ve got to make sure I’m extremely disciplined,” he said in the off-season.
”When I’m at Waratahs, physically here, I’m not doing anything to do with the Wallabies. And when I’m away from here I’m able to do things with the Wallabies.
“I will have a physical divide, because if you cross those things over you’ll only get muddled.”
Cheika’s coaching was instrumental in turning the Sydney-based team from a laughing stock into champions within two seasons, and their title defence may rest on his ability to juggle the two roles successfully.
Though New Zealand’s Chiefs are the bookies favourites to win the provincial championship, the Waratahs should be able to win the Australian conference again to book a spot in the playoffs.
Cheika turned the team into a try-scoring machine last season and a backline boasting Israel Folau and Kurtley Beale, and steered by flyhalf Bernard Foley, has enough firepower to trouble the best sides in the competition.
The Canberra-based ACT Brumbies, who were beaten in the semi-finals last year by the Waratahs after a trip to the final in the previous season, will also be confident of nabbing one of the six spots in the playoffs.
The twice champions will have their fingers crossed that David Pocock, one of the world’s best openside flankers before two consecutive knee reconstructions, can stay on his feet after managing only five games in two seasons.
Although they missed out on a playoff berth, Western Force were Australia’s biggest success story outside of the Waratahs last season as they managed a club record nine wins after years of propping up the table.
While the Perth team also have a chance to make the playoffs Australia’s two other sides, the Queensland Reds and Melbourne Rebels, are likely to struggle.
The Reds have picked up an exciting talent in errant former Wallaby back James O‘Connor and Karmichael Hunt, a former rugby league international who also made a successful conversion to Australian Rules football.
Hunt may provide a badly-needed spark at fullback but the 2011 champions have suffered a huge blow with flyhalf Quade Cooper expected to miss half the season after breaking his collarbone in training.
Editing by Peter Rutherford