WALES v AUSTRALIA BIG-MATCH PREVIEW
...PLUS WIN WALES v GEORGIA TICKETS
IT remains one of the great sports quotes, uttered by a man who had previously lost 16 times in a row to the American tennis player Jimmy Connors.
Vitas Gerulaitis finally stopped the rot at the Masters in 1980.
Addressing the media afterwards with tongue firmly in cheek, he declared: “And let that be a lesson to you all. Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row.”
Post-match quotes don’t get any better.
You wonder if Warren Gatland will come up with a similar line should Wales manage to see off Australia in the autumn-series opener in Cardiff. The Wallabies, after all, have handed Wales 12 consecutive defeats, a run that has spanned nine years.
The problem is we know that others have piled even more misery on Wales.
The All Blacks, for instance, have handed sides in red 29 beatings on the bounce.
So should Wales do the unexpected, Gatland will just have to come up with a completely fresh offering.
Let’s assume that challenge wouldn’t be beyond him.
But whether the task of beating a side who three weeks ago downed New Zealand – a team Wales last overturned in the days when men wore flat caps to football matches, drank Bovril on packed terraces and twirled wooden rattles in the air – proves beyond his players remains to be seen. What is to be said? Thousands of words have been written across continents ahead of this game, with team selections analysed, re-analysed and trawled over many more times, either for luck or just to make sure absolutely nothing was missed.
Possible game-plans have been dissected and Gatland was even persuaded to mark his 10th anniversary as Wales coach by naming the most talented and most professional players he has worked with during his time at the Welsh helm.
For those who missed it, Shane Williams took the first plaudit and Leigh Halfpenny the second.
It begged the question why there wasn’t a category for Gethin Jenkins, a man who, at his absolute peak, was priceless with his ability to turn over opposition possession, level ball-carriers of any size and provide the Welsh pack with immense resolve. “The best Welsh player I have seen over the past 20 years,” an acquaintance remarked the other week. Not everyone would agree, but it’s worth having an argument over.
Whatever, for all the blanket coverage maybe the most telling words of the lot slipped through relatively unnoticed.
They were spoken by Wallaby centre Tevita Kuridrani in response to a question about whether the long Welsh losing streak in the fixture gave the visitors a psychological edge.
Kuridrani muttered something about it being “very tough playing Wales” before declaring: “If we don’t turn up at the weekend, it’s anyone’s game.”
Er, OK — so it’s only anyone’s game if the Wallabies fail to turn up? Fair enough. But if they do turn up, should we assume that Wales can forget about any possibility of winning?
That seems to be the unspoken message.
Let’s just assume Gatland has noted those words and made his players aware of them, too.
It’s actually debatable whether Australians have seriously rated Wales at rugby for the thick end of 30 years.
They can talk about it being “very tough playing Wales” but the reality is the two countries have met 27 times since the inaugural World Cup and Wales have won just two of those fixtures.
Last term, Australia handed out a thrashing to rival any they have administered to Welsh teams in the professional era.
Three tries were run in during the first 34 minutes with the bewildered hosts looking as if they had prepared for a cross-country jog only to rock up and find they were in a 100-yard dash against Usain Bolt. ‘Embarrassing’ barely covered it.
Those with long memories had seen it all before in this fixture, of course.
Indeed, step this way, all those who feel life is tough for Wales at the moment, what with Sam Warburton, Justin Tipuric and Rhys Webb in the sick bay and the aforementioned Gethin Jenkins no longer in the team.
Travel back in time to 1991 when Wales appeared to have decided it might be a good idea not to bother having a line-out against Australia.
John Eales and Rod McCall helped the Wallabies to 28 out of 30 throws in a World Cup clash in Cardiff. At times the pair seemed to be engaged in a completely different sporting activity from the one being practised by those opposing them.
Wales were simply masquerading as a Test team at the time. Matters had reached a low when Bridgend RFC defeated the national team. Had the Dog & Duck been granted a fixture, there is every chance the regulars there would have got the job done.
By contrast, Wales today are a picture of health.
That isn’t to suggest anyone should go overboard – far from it.
Indeed on paper, far stronger-looking Welsh teams than this one have lost to Australia, and lost heavily at that.
But rugby isn’t a precise science and Wales will hope Gatland’s ability to coax big performances out of his players will come to the fore.
Where the Kiwi was right this week was to point out that for all the chatter about the Welsh attacking game and the introduction of a second playmaker at 12 in Owen Williams, the first challenge will be to make sure the defence is on the money.
Australia are averaging close on five tries a game in 2017. Their revered former fly-half Mark Ella recently criticised aspects of their attack, but they are still a team who can destroy opponents in the blink of an eye.
They will miss the absent Israel Folau, but Kurtley Beale has talent to spare at full back and the Wallabies will look to him fill a second playmaking role and complement two centres in Kuridrani and Samu Kerevi who might cause some small armies to flee to the hills.
Will Williams’s defence be up to the job against them? It has to be, for there is no hiding place at this level.
Michael Hooper will lead the visitors’ quest for quick ball and there are few better at that particular challenge. At times, it can appear he has sneaked a twin brother onto the pitch.
Josh Navidi faces a challenging 80 minutes, then, but there are worse back-row colleagues to have than Taulupe Faletau, another bloke who would rate a serious mention in any ‘best Welsh player of the past 10 years’ debate.
Wales need Aaron Shingler to transfer his regional form into the Test arena and they need Alun Wyn Jones — see the stuff on Faletau above and include the Osprey in the mix as well — to play like, er, Alun Wyn Jones. That would do nicely.
Have Wales got every selection right? We are about to find out. It is all subjective, but the best attacking Welsh full-back this writer has seen this season is Hallam Amos.
That said, defence and experience matters and maybe it would have been too much of a gamble to field him in a backline that boasts Test L-platers in Owen Williams and Steff Evans.
How Evans shapes up will be fascinating.
What we are about to witness is a body swap in which the Australian backs have a surfeit of weight and power against a side who used to have those commodities in abundance behind the scrum but now boast two playmakers and a comparatively lightweight back three.
But the Wallabies still carry lots of skill.
Can Wales stop them extending their golden era in this fixture? The odds are against them. But Gatland is playing a long game and looking to the World Cup.
How players perform in these matches will go a long way to determining whether they are part of the fun in Japan two years down the line. The assessment process starts here. Those who want to go to Japan need to think of putting their hands up.
Dejected Wales players leave the field following last season’s 32-8 hammering
Warren Gatland gets his points across during Wales’ final training session yesterday