O'Neill tips NZ v Wallabies
Sydney - Australian Rugby Union chief John O'Neill has tipped the Wallabies to meet the All Blacks in the Rugby World Cup final this year, but would not hazard a guess as to who would come out on top.
"I think our prospects for World Cup 2011 are really encouraging," O'Neill told local media on Tuesday. "No one is sitting here saying we are going to win it.
"My prediction is we will make the final and play the All Blacks. As to who might win the final, well, we'll come to that."
Australia beat world champions South Africa twice in the southern hemisphere's Tri-Nations tournament last year to snatch the world number two ranking behind the top-ranked All Blacks, but remain very much a work in progress.
The Robbie Deans-coached side lost a record 10th consecutive match to the All Blacks in September and were thumped by Six Nations champions England 35-18 during their season-ending tour.
O'Neill took heart in the improvement of the likes of flyhalf Quade Cooper and fullback Kurtley Beale, likening the current Wallabies lineup to the Rod Macqueen-coached side that triumphed in the 1999 World Cup.
"If I look at the '99 team and the players who had X-factor, (captain John) Eales, (Tim) Horan, (George) Gregan, (Stephen) Larkham, Matt Burke. It would be hard to argue that Quade Cooper, Kurtley Beale, James O'Connor don't have X-factor," O'Neill said.
While Deans's tenure has seen the emergence of a number of talented backs, the New Zealander has struggled to mould a world-beating forward pack, with threadbare front row stocks a particular concern.
O'Neill tempered his enthusiasm by conceding that the Wallabies were yet to fully overcome weaknesses around the scrum and that the backs' spark would only go so far at the September 9-October 23 tournament.
"The caveat I've got on our prospects is that it won't be razzle-dazzle. 2007 reminded us that this is a tournament," added O'Neill, referring to the Wallabies' disappointing quarter-final loss to England in the last World Cup.