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Australians launch Operation Free Billy

Australians launch Operation Free Billy

With Stephen Larkham and George Gregan in the mix at a World Cup for the last time, Australia has a chance in France.
That's both the strength and a weakness for the two-time champion Wallabies.
Take either out of the equation and there's problems _ particularly an injury at No. 10, which would force a backline reshuffle.
And that's on top of the biggest existing hurdle, assuming the Australians advance so far, which is: How to get past heavy World Cup favorite New Zealand in the semifinals _ again.
"We are comfortable about where we are in terms of our preparations," coach John Connolly said. "But we are worried about key players picking up injures.
"There's no doubt Stephen Larkham is important to us. In the World Cup in '91, if Michael Lynagh had been injured it would have been a problem for us."
Lynagh was instrumental in Australia's triumph in England in 1991, at the second World Cup, just as Larkham was pivotal in the Wallabies' winning campaign in Britain in '99.
While Gregan has surrendered the captaincy and has been shuffled in and out of the starting lineup in the last season, the 134-test veteran has proved he is Australia's No. 1 choice at scrumhalf.
The most-capped player of all time has returned to the form of 2003, when he guided the unfancied Australians to within one kick of winning back-to-back World Cups.
While there are other candidates at scrumhalf, there's no high quality backup for Larkham.
The best option as cover for both halves positions is Matt Giteau, but moving the brilliant young center would ruin his equally important midfield combination with skipper Stirling Mortlock.
And if the midfield cohesion is compromised, attacking weapons like Lote Tuqiri on the wing and Chris Latham at fullback are wasted.
Connolly said Australia simply didn't have the depth of New Zealand, South Africa, France or England to cover losses in key areas.
But if he can keep his backline intact, and keep his forward pack competitive, Connolly believes Australia's chances are as good as any among the top six countries.
The Australians open their campaign against Japan at Lyon on Sept. 8, but their main focus is on Wales in Cardiff on Sept. 15.
The winner of that match should top Group B _ which also includes Fiji and Canada _ and likely avoid South Africa in the quarterfinals.
If Australia tops Group B and defending champion England is second behind South Africa in Group A, it'll set up a rematch of the 2003 final. English flyhalf Johnny Wilkinson won that with an extra time dropped goal.
Larkham said this squad has a winning vibe about it, coming in with wins over New Zealand, South Africa and two defeats of the Welsh this season.
"It's a very good buildup," he said. "We've gathered a lot of confidence over the Tri-Nations and the performances over the 12 months, improving from week to week."
Blockbusting No. 8 Wycliff Palu, coming into his first World Cup, has emerged as a runner and enforcer in the mold of Toutai Kefu. His combination in the backrow with the likes of George Smith and Phil Waugh is crucial in Australia's gameplan, which aims for quick recycling of the ball and expansive backline attack.
"There's a good blend of experience and youth _ probably erring on the side of experience," Larkham said. "It's very similar to the '99 campaign."
Gregan, 34, will be playing his fourth World Cup, with 33-year-old Larkham at his third.
When they retire in October, they exit as Australia's two most capped players.
"The whole squad are totally looking forward to the challenge and hopefully sending off George Gregan and Stephen Larkham in fitting style," Mortlock said.
In Australia's favor, it has won the World Cup both times it has been held previously in Europe _ beating England in the 1991 after scraping past Ireland in the quarterfinals via Lynagh's late try and then New Zealand in the semis; and topping France in '99 after a narrow semifinal win over South Africa.
Larkham scored a match-breaking dropped goal in the '99 win over South Africa that made Australia favorites to beat the French in the deciding match.
"We'll be doing everything in our power to make sure we bring back `Bill,'" Larkham said when the team left Australia, recalling the slogan that the squad of eight years go adopted in its bid to win the rugby's ultimate prize: the William Webb Ellis Trophy.


Updated : 2020-12-03 22:17 GMT+08:00