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Saturday 10 December 2016

Michael Cheika: 'Australia underdogs for World Cup clash with England'

Australia head coach Michael Cheika celebrates with Kurtley Beale after the game
Australia head coach Michael Cheika celebrates with Kurtley Beale after the game

Michael Cheika insists Australia are still underdogs for Saturday's make-or-break World Cup encounter with England despite the beleaguered hosts' damaging defeat to Wales.

Under-fire England boss Stuart Lancaster's entire tenure is on the line at Twickenham on Saturday night, where defeat could well dump the hosts out of the tournament.

Failure to reach the quarter-finals would ink England's place into the history books for all the wrong reasons, as the worst-performing hosts of a World Cup.

England lost out 28-25 to Wales last weekend despite twice leading by 10 points against Warren Gatland's side, and must now beat Australia to keep their tournament hopes alive.

"You'd have to think we're still underdogs, playing in their backyard," said Wallabies head coach Cheika, speaking after Wycliff Palu and Will Skelton were ruled out of the tournament through injury.

"I was talking to some of the lads the other day - when the thunder starts at Twickenham, you've got to be ready for it.

"They've been very successful at that ground, so it's just about being ready to be yourself and play our way, and play the best we can and let the cards fall as they may.

"Every team's got the ability to bounce back, that's the joy of rugby.

"You play one week then get the chance to go out the next.

"So I don't think there's any doubt about that.

"We're more than aware of that, because we've been in similar positions, losing one week and needing to win the next.

"I'm sure they'll believe strongly they'll beat us, and I'm sure that's all that counts."

Flanker Palu's Wallabies career looks to be over after 57 caps owing to a tournament-ending hamstring injury, while lock Skelton needs surgery to repair a torn pectoral.

Australia have replaced Palu with James Hanson, seizing on the opportunity to add a third specialist hooker after receiving criticism for only naming two in their original 31-man squad.

Sam Carter is a direct replacement for Skelton, the Wallabies losing the tournament's second-heaviest player.

As the pressure mounts steadily on England boss Lancaster, Cheika has attempted to downplay the magnitude of Saturday's tie - but was obviously happy to crank up the tension as a cheeky by-product.

"I don't know if it would damage the tournament if England are knocked out early, that's not my domain," said Cheika.

"I'm just the simple old coach of the Australian team.

"I'm not trying to avoid anything, I just don't know.

"It's been a great tournament so far, though.

"It shows just how popular rugby is in England.

"I don't think you hide from the situation and pretend something's not happening.

"We always knew we were playing England in this competition.

"And the place we're coming from after the last spring tour, every game's like a World Cup final.

"We've started the tournament like that, and we've had probably a different approach maybe to other teams in that.

"It is what it is, we knew it was coming so we prepare for ourselves and just keep going.

"We don't think we've got the right to say 'they're strong this week and not that week because they're angry this week'."

The ever-savvy Cheika then employed a knowing humble brag over Australia's rapid progress since his October 2014 appointment - purposely highlighted to contrast the three years Lancaster has had to prepare for this World Cup.

"We're coming from a fair way back, we've got a relatively inexperienced coaching staff at international level - we're all pretty much babies at it, not in age obviously, but in experience," said Cheika.

"And so we're just doing our best as we go along.

"They've had a long time together, and planning this.

"So I'm really happy with the way we've approached it but I'm still looking for big improvements, we've still got more improvement in us, mentally, tactically and physically in our game."

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