WALES v AUS­TRALIA BIG-MATCH PRE­VIEW

...PLUS WIN WALES v GE­OR­GIA TICK­ETS

South Wales Echo - - Front Page - MARK OR­DERS Rugby correspondent mark.or­ders@waleson­line.co.uk

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

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