Before heading home to Australia for a well-earned rest, the Wallabies face Wales at the Millennium Stadium in the final match of their Spring Tour. Ever since the setback at Twickenham where Australia lost 20-13, the Wallabies have been gradually improving, and have really hit their straps in the last couple of weeks, comfortably defeating Ireland before beating Scotland by six points with a second-string side.
The Wallabies have every right to be confident, but still should be wary of this Welsh side that has also been improving since a disappointing defeat to South Africa in the first of their games this November. Warren Gatland’s side turned on the style with a fantastic performance against Argentina – the men in red scoring four tries against the Rugby Championship team – before comfortably seeing off Tonga in a game that really wasn’t for the impartial observer.
Like Australia, Wales are very confident of getting the win, and with both sides highly determined; it’s likely to be one of the most competitive fixtures of 2013. Let’s take a look at some of the talking points of this year’s final fixture:
Will It Be Eighth Time Lucky For Warren Gatland’s Wales?
Australia have become something of a bogey team for Wales during Gatland’s tenure, with his side only managing one win in nine attempts against the Wallabies. In the last two years, the two sides have faced each other six times, with Wales losing by an average of 3.6 points; and in the last three encounters, losing by less than two points.
The fact that Wales have had so many close encounters with the Wallabies and still come up short has led some to suggest that Gatland’s side have some sort of mental block as far as Australia are concerned. Certainly, if there is a side that is going to be mentally frail in the fixture, history suggests it will certainly be Wales.
Does The Lions Result Swing The Pendulum Towards Wales?
If there is a legitimate argument that Wales’ past woes against the Wallabies may count against them on Saturday, there is also an argument that the Lions series victory this summer – masterminded by Gatland – is of the utmost relevance when it comes to Saturday’s contest.
The Lions of course won this summer’s series 2-1, with Gatland opting to pick ten Welshmen in the starting lineup in the deciding test. The Lions ended up winning 41-16; quite simply blowing the Wallabies away in every department. Given that many of the same players will take to the field for Wales on Saturday, in addition to coaching help from Gatland and two other Lions coaches – Neil Jenkins and Robert Howley – it is legitimate to suggest that Wales have the advantage of the more recent win against the Wallabies; perhaps nullifying their dismal record of the last few years.
How Will Wales Play The Game?
When Gatland picked his Lions squad, his selection was viewed by many as a very one-dimensional one. Gatland likes power, size and pace, and these seem to be his two main prerequisites for selection (Shane Williams excepted).
Gatland’s Wales side play a similar style to the game-plan that was so successful in the final Lions test, and it seems very unlikely that they will deviate from that with a precious Wallaby scalp at stake. Wales will want to keep the battle contained to the forwards, and with a very big forward pack, it’s not hard to see why.
Captain Sam Warburton is a talisman for Gatland’s side, and his back row colleagues Dan Lydiate and Toby Faletau will be under strict instructions to carry and carry and carry. Gatland believes strongly in the mantra of ‘earning the right to go wide’, and anyone expecting Wales to suddenly start flinging the ball wide is quite simply delusional. That is not to say that Wales will not look to attack, but rather they will look to attack within the confines of their game-plan.
Wales have history in targeting the 10 channel, and with Jamie Roberts injured, battering ram duties will most likely fall to the man mountain George North and the outside centre Owen Williams. Wales will look to target Cooper and then pick and go to get in behind the Wallabies before giving the ball to Dan Biggar to get the ball wide and into the hands of the danger-men Alex Cuthbert and Leigh Halfpenny.
The selection of Dan Biggar over Rhys Priestland is particularly instructive, as it suggests that Wales may play an even more structured game plan than the one we’ve come to expect. Biggar likes to kick to the corners and play the percentages, and this could see Wales knocking the ball behind the Wallabies and looking to gain ground that way.
Which Welsh Players Need Watching?
As everyone saw during the Lions tour, George North can be a real handful, and the Wallabies will need to come up with a plan to contain the winger if they are to be successful on Saturday. The North Walian scored two tries in the Lions series as Australia failed to cope with him, and that will be something Ewen McKenzie will certainly be looking to address this week.
On the other wing, Wales have recalled another Lion, Alex Cuthbert who has successfully overcome his injury problems, and Cuthbert poses almost as big a threat as North. Quite simply, Cuthbert is a finisher, and he will need to be closely marked by the Wallaby defence, as if he’s given even a hint of space he’s shown that he can sniff out the tryline.
Welsh fullback Leigh Halfpenny was a catalyst for the second half drubbing the Wallabies received from the Lions in the final test, and McKenzie will hope that the Australian kickers can handle him better this time around. It is integral that Halfpenny is offered no loose possession, and he showed in the summer what a counter attacking threat he can be.
5 Key Battles
Sam Warburton vs. Michael Hooper
Two of the world’s best opensides will go head to head and this is probably the contest that we’re all looking forward to the most. Hooper’s work rate has been incredible on tour so far and it is his ability to get around the field that makes him such a thorn in the opposition’s side. Warburton is the Northern Hemisphere master of the breakdown, and Hooper’s job will be to secure Wallaby ball before Warburton pinches it.
Leigh Halfpenny vs. Israel Folau
Folau has been a revelation at fullback for the Wallabies, and his ability to turn defence into attack has been one of the main catalysts behind this Australian side getting back on track. He comes up against the Lions man of the series, Leigh Halfpenny, and whoever wins this battle has got a great chance of ending up on the winning side.
Dan Biggar vs. Quade Cooper
In Biggar and Cooper we see a real clash of styles and it will be a fascinating contest on Saturday. Biggar is a pragmatic and percentages-style 10, whilst Quade Cooper is probably the most attacking flyhalf in the world. Both 10s will need to kick very well, and whichever player manages to get their backline going the best will probably win the game.
Will Genia vs. Mike Phillips
Another two players with massively contrasting styles’, how Phillips and Genia play on Saturday will have a huge bearing on the result. Genia started as the better of the two 9s but tailed off in the third test, with Phillips coming back strongly after a disappointing start. The Genia/Cooper axis is of fundamental importance to the Wallabies game plan, and if Phillips can disrupt Genia he can cut off the supply to the Australian backs.
Christian Lealiifano vs Leigh Halfpenny
Okay, so we’ve already had Halfpenny, but it’s important to remember that the fullback is especially important to Wales because of his exceptional goal kicking ability. The little Welshman rarely misses, and his goal kicking has been a crucial reason why Wales have won the last two Six Nations championships. Given how close previous Wales and Australia games have been, nailing every single point is very important, and Wales will feel confident that Halfpenny is the man to do that for them. Lealiifano missed five kicks against Scotland, and will need to do a lot better on Saturday.
Who’s Going To Win?
Honestly, this one is too close to call. The Wallabies have certainly improved immeasurably since the Lions series, but Wales look to be in good form, and despite a few injuries, they gave a good account of themselves against South Africa. The game is likely to come down to minute detail once again, so I think that the side that finishes the game with a 100% goal kicking record will win the game.