COMMENT

The high drama across the Tasman with Israel Folau might not be such a bad thing for the Wallabies.

It might even be the catalyst they have been looking for to pull together a talented but wayward group.

The Wallabies have been a good team waiting to happen in the last few years but between the volatility of head coach Michael Cheika and his deteriorating relationship with former assistant Stephen Larkham and a lack of mental resolve among the players, they have been erratic and disjointed since the last World Cup.

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The administrative mess created by the need to axe one of their Super Rugby teams in 2017 and the lingering ill-feeling that created, has compounded this sense that Australian rugby operates in a near permanent chaos.

And now there is the Folau saga, which everyone can see is not going to end well.

There will be precisely no winners in this sad, nasty business, however it concludes.

Folau may well win his legal fight and save his career but it will be the mother of all Pyrrhic victories.

Rugby teams haven't presented themselves in recent years as the most socially inclusive institutions and no doubt Folau is not the only homophobe in the professional game.

But the typical Super Rugby changing room is not morally bereft or without good, decent people and among Folau's peers, there will be widespread and intense discomfort with what he has said.

The majority haven't expressed their disgust, but that doesn't mean they don't feel it and Folau, should he be able to continue playing is going to hold Pariah status.

His Waratahs teammates will not find it easy to forgive and forget, but in the spirit of the unity and inclusiveness that they want Folau to support, they will have to find a way, however unpalatable, to accept him as part of the team.

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But it will be a different case for the Wallabies who simply don't have to pick him.

Cheika has been criticised for saying he won't select Folau following his social media comments, with former Wallaby Nick Farr-Jones adamant that the coach has prematurely played his hand.

In Cheika's defence, he's entitled to say that regardless of the contractual outcome, he doesn't want a player with Folau's extreme beliefs in the team as they are contrary to the values of the Wallabies.

Australian Wallabies rugby team coach Michael Cheika. Photo / Brett Phibbs.
Australian Wallabies rugby team coach Michael Cheika. Photo / Brett Phibbs.

Far from being lambasted as he was, Cheika should be applauded for protecting the cultural integrity of the Wallabies and making it clear he won't give a test jersey to any player who wants to be selective about which parts of Australian society they are willing to represent.

But that won't stop the coach coming under intense pressure to pick Folau should the errant fullback win the right to keep playing.

Australia tore itself apart deciding whether to legalise gay marriage and in New South Wales and Queensland, where the majority of the rugby fraternity are based, they respectively voted 42 per cent and 39 per cent against.

Those statistics hint at the inevitability of the hard core Wallaby supporter seeing winning a World Cup as a more worthy goal than taking a moral stand.

No one can deny that Folau is a brilliant footballer and that the Wallabies will be a better equipped, more potent attacking force with him in the team.

Cheika will, therefore, come under pressure to bow to the tangible: to accept the undeniable truth that Folau's playing talent outweighs any intangible disruptive element his presence may provoke and has to be picked.

And so it will rumble, the differing views creating a near intolerable pressure on Cheika and his Wallaby team, with the Australian Rugby Union powerless to intervene as if Folau wins his case, the national body will be re-cast as interested bystander.

The situation will look explosive. Toxic even and a Wallaby team, faith in whom has been tumbling as it is, will suddenly appear to have crashed off the rails just months before the World Cup.

But this seemingly hopeless and desperate situation could just as easily, if not more probably, flip the Wallabies back on their feet and be the galvanising force they have craved since 2016.

The Wallabies have used player-driven adversity to drive them in the past. In 2014 they were on the cusp of a meltdown when Kurtley Beale triggered a scandal following an unsavoury text exchange with the team's commercial manager.

It was a similarly divisive business that ended up with the Wallabies under siege in the build-up to the final Bledisloe Cup test of the year in Brisbane.

The Wallabies were front page news that week, not for anything they were doing or had done on the field, but because Rugby Australia board members were leaking details about all sorts of things they shouldn't have been.

Wallabies Fullback Israel Folau scores a try during the second match of the Bledisloe Cup at Eden Park. Photo / Brett Phibbs.
Wallabies Fullback Israel Folau scores a try during the second match of the Bledisloe Cup at Eden Park. Photo / Brett Phibbs.

Written off as a rabble, the Wallabies were miraculously good at Suncorp. Adversity drew them together, focused their minds and they were within one minute of a famous win.

Coach Ewen McKenzie had already told the board earlier that day he was resigning and that only intensified the bond among the players.

Cheika took the helm a few weeks later and presumably deduced that his players actually relished being the subject of external scorn, and milked the whole siege mentality thing for another 12 months, taking Australia to a World Cup final on the back of the simmering anger that had brewed at the tail end of 2014.

There is probably no coach in world rugby better equipped than Cheika to lock a group of players in a room, tell them everyone outside it is willing them to fail and doesn't rate them and have them walk out half an hour later united and ready to run through brick walls for one another.

This is his kind of situation and with Larkham gone from the coaching staff and no dissenting voice challenging the tactical direction of the team, the Wallabies may well be the surprise package at this World Cup.

The talent has always been there, but not the cohesion about what they are doing. Attitude has been a problem, too.

Some weeks the Wallabies have looked like they would bleed for the cause, others, they drift in and out of the game.

The Folau saga will give them a communal emotional driver: a united focus to keep them hungry, urgent and eager. It will bring them closer to Cheika as they look to support his stance of not selecting Folau and while they can't live off that for ever, they can through to the World Cup.

And nor should anyone forget that the Wallabies tend to sort themselves out at World Cups with our without a national scandal.

They have won twice and been in two other finals – a record that is just about as good as the All Blacks.

No one seems to want to take the Wallabies seriously at the moment. But they should.