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Preview: Wales v Australia

29th November 2013 05:16

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Mike Phillips Wales v Aus 2013

Catching a break: Mike Phillips

Australia, Wales' nemesis, will finish a rollercoaster year in a Millennium Stadium filled with a baying crowd on Saturday.

Baying, that is, for a win over the big three. Back-to-back Six Nations titles is a great achievement, including one Grand Slam last year, even more so when you remember how they were knocked on the canvas by Ireland in their first 40 minutes of this year's Championship.

The Wallabies' ascension back into third place in the IRB Rankings restores what has been a familiar triumvirate at the top of the world in recent years.

Wales can continue to win Six Nations titles at will, satisfying sibling rivalries in Europe and flexing their muscles. But it won't cure the itch of arguably not reaching their potential by downing one of the SANZAR trio.

This at least has been the sentiment since that drama of the 2011 Rugby World Cup, when a young squad anchored around Sam Warburton, Toby Faletau, Leigh Halfpenny and the rest caught nearly everyone off-guard. The controversial exit to France is history - it truly does not matter anymore - but it has sparked a run of expecting more from Wales.

The Grand Slam momentarily quenched that thirst, but there is more to come. There must be, considering the talent available to Warren Gatland and his coaching staff.

The runs without a win over the big three keep extending. There has been no triumph over Australia since 2008. No success against South Africa since 1999. Nothing against the All Blacks since 1953.

Four times Wales took on Australia in 2012 and by slim margins they came up short. The performances were bold and thrilling but each time, there was nothing to show for it. In a November where England have improved and Ireland are threatening to do the same, Wales seem to be standing still. A win over the Wallabies will change that.

Key members of that talented squad though are missing on Saturday. Adam Jones, Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies will all be in the stands watching on.

Davies in particular is an enormous loss - the emerging star of the British and Irish Lions tour down under earlier this year. Now the best 13 in Europe, pound for pound, the loss of Davies hands Owen Williams an opportunity but the former's absence is significant.

Besides Rhodri Jones filling in for namesake Adam, Wales though are packed full of international experience.

Time remains until the 2015 global showpiece for Wales to get that elusive SANZAR win, but it has to happen sooner rather than later. The pressure is sitting heavily on their shoulders.

As for the Wallabies, their year has been all over the place but a vein of normality and steadiness is beginning to take over - such as is to be expected from Ewen McKenzie at the helm.

The former Test prop has anchored his team through heavy criticism for their performances, especially against South Africa at Newlands and in his first match against New Zealand in Sydney. But then his baptism has been unforgiving. Having to face the All Blacks and Springboks whilst still implanting new methods and orthodoxes into the Wallaby camp is an unforgiving ask of any coach, even with McKenzie's success and familiarity with key members of his squad.

Australia have improved with each game, the blip against England getting their tour off to an awful start but they were ruthless against Italy and Ireland and did enough despite Christian Leali'ifano's misfiring boot to see off Scotland last Saturday.

By winning both games either side of the off-field drinking scandal that broke last week, a combination of victory and McKenzie's swift action mean that the issue has been almost forgotten.

Welcoming back Adam Ashley-Cooper and Nick Cummins is also a blessing, with Ashley-Cooper compensating for the absence of Tevita Kuridrani and Cummins - a player who seems to love excelling in Europe - on the left wing.

It feels very much like a new Australia, spearheaded by captain Ben Mowen, but with a familiar cast. Quade Cooper might as well be a new person altogether in the number ten jersey. The careless errors have been replaced by control, although his vision hasn't been compromised - just look at the try created for Israel Folau against Scotland. Yes, Ryan Grant is a loosehead prop and defensively he was left in the way, but Cooper made him look like one.

McKenzie's record now reads played 11, won five - far from ideal but no longer disastrous. Winning against Wales based on recent history would just be another number to add to the record, which is probably exactly what McKenzie wants - little fuss, another notch in the win column.

But the meaning behind it would be far greater. Wales are the Six Nations champions and after coming up short against England, this would be a fine scalp for the Wallabies to take back to Australia. They have the talent and the means to capture it, bringing what has been an exceptionally tricky year filled with a lost Lions series, a head coaching change and too many off-field issues to an exhaling close.

Ones to watch:

For Wales: Picking the bigger loss out of Jamie Roberts, Adam Jones and Jonathan Davies is a tricky game, but Davies had the Wallabies sussed in the third Test earlier this year. In his place comes in young Owen Williams, who marked his Test debut with a try against Tonga last Friday in one of extremely few highlights to be taken from the slugfest. Facing Adam Ashley-Cooper will provide him with a slightly sterner test.

For Australia: This same fixture last year was all about the return of Wallaby openside David Pocock. Australia missed him in 2012 but they arguably haven't so much in 2013, and that's down to Michael Hooper. Handsomely developing into one of the world's premier opensides and set to go toe-to-toe with Sam Warburton in Cardiff, Hooper has had an outstanding year and his poaching ability at the breakdown is first-rate.

Head-to-Head: Arguably the world's two leading full-backs, Israel Dagg and Willie Le Roux aside. Leigh Halfpenny and Israel Folau are vastly different in stature but equal in their importance to their sides. Halfpenny is not just a metronomic kicker - the subtleties to his game include incisive running and deceptive pace, whilst he has never been a liability in defence. His nomination for the IRB Player of the Year Award is richly deserved. Folau at this rate will scoop up that award this time next year, such has been his devastating impact on Test rugby. Out to take Lote Tuqiri's try-scoring record in a single year for the Wallabies, Folau has nine in 14 games. At times he is simply unplayable.

Recent results:
2012: Australia won 14-12, Cardiff
2012: Australia won 20-19, Sydney
2012: Australia won 25-23, Gold Goast
2012: Australia won 27-19, Brisbane
2011: Australia won 24-18, Cardiff
2011: Australia won 21-18, Auckland
2010: Australia won 25-16, Cardiff
2009: Australia won 30-12, Cardiff
2008: Wales won 21-18, Cardiff
2007: Australia won 32-20, Cardiff
2007: Australia won 31-0, Brisbane
2007: Australia won 29-23, Sydney
2006: Match drawn 29-29, Cardiff
2005: Wales won 24-22, Cardiff

Prediction: As close as ever, the Wallabies are at the end of a long, trying year. They are good enough to win this, of course, but Wales just have to break their run of luck against Australia at some point. Saturday feels like that day, by the tiniest of margins. Wales by three!

The teams:

Wales: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 Owen Williams, 12 Scott Williams, 11 George North, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Mike Phillips, 8 Toby Faletau, 7 Sam Warburton (capt), 6 Dan Lydiate, 5 Ian Evans, 4 Alun-Wyn Jones, 3 Rhodri Jones, 2 Richard Hibbard, 1 Gethin Jenkins.
Replacements: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Ryan Bevington, 18 Samson Lee, 19 Ryan Jones, 20 Justin Tipuric, 21 Rhodri Williams, 22 Rhys Priestland, 23 Liam Williams.

Australia: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Joe Tomane, 13 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12 Christian Leali'ifano, 11 Nick Cummins, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 Will Genia, 8 Ben Mowen (c), 7 Michael Hooper, 6 Scott Fardy, 5 James Horwill, 4 Rob Simmons, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Stephen Moore, 1 James Slipper.
Replacements: 16 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 17 Benn Robinson, 18 Ben Alexander, 19 Kane Douglas, 20 Dave Dennis, 21 Nic White, 22 Mike Harris, 23 Bernard Foley.

Date: Saturday 30th November
Venue: Millennium Stadium
Kick-off: 18:00 (GMT)
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant referees: Alain Rolland, John Lacey (both Ireland)

by Ben Coles
@bencoles_

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