Wales should have enough to snatch a win over Wallabies, but don’t bet on it...
THE BBC boxing programme in the dim and distant past had almost run its course when the presenter John Inverdale asked his studio guest Nigel Benn a question about the state of the sport.
Benn pondered his response for several seconds before replying: “I liked it when it was on ITV. I don’t follow it no more.”
An against-the-grain comment can rankle.
Which takes us to Warren Gatland’s post-match press conference last weekend and his perceived irritation at being asked about the importance of Wales getting a monkey off their back by beating Australia, their World Cup pool opponents, in the final meeting between the sides ahead of next year’s global showpiece in Japan.
The query punctured the positivity that had been in the air, with some feeling there was scope for the coach to view it as putting pressure on his players.
“It’s not so much about getting the monkey off the back,” he said. “We’ve been unlucky at times but it would be nice to win next week and get a result.
“But the more important game will be the pool game at the World Cup.”
He didn’t fire a death-ray stare at his inquisitor but the chap wisely didn’t continue with that line of questioning.
THE PRESSURE OF BEING FAVOURITES
Gatland has needed to be light on his feet this week as bookmakers from Albania to Zimbabwe have installed Wales as favourites to end their 13-game losing run against the Wallabies.
On the same day that Wales’ coach announced his team, his opposite number Michael Cheika was lauding Gatland and calling the hosts “very well organised and well drilled — it’s a great opportunity for us to try to take the scalp”. Cheika is where every coach wants to be, leading a side who are in the underdog’s kennel.
Lose in Cardiff and he can point to the world rankings, which see Wales in third position and his own team in sixth, and say to critics: “What did you expect?”
Win and there will be queues of people wanting to pat his back.
Little wonder that Gatland has tried to manage expectations, saying that anyone who writes off Australian teams does so at their peril.
His challenge is to ensure Wales deal with something they have not had to contend with in this fixture for a decade or longer, namely the burden of favouritism.
The former New Zealand hooker has had to tread the fine line between bolstering his players’ sense of belief and underlining that the Wallabies are probably not as bad as the whole world and his wife are making out.
AUSTRALIA’S LOSING RUN
Yes, Cheika’s team have managed a measly three wins over their last 10 matches.
But six of those encounters have been against the top two sides in the global ratings, New Zealand and Ireland. And two more of them have been against South Africa, who have been showing signs of serious improvement.
So, maybe, just maybe, a side that contains David Pocock, Michael Hooper, Will Genia, Bernard Foley, Kurtley Beale and Israel Folau could still have something about them.
And yet it is undeniable that losses can fracture the confidence of even experienced players and so Wales will want to start well and plant further doubts in Wallaby minds.
It’s certainly overdue for the tide to turn in the series between these two.
Once, Wales held an 8-5 lead in wins against Australia, but since the 1987 World Cup the Wallabies have piled up 25 victories out of 28 games, with one match drawn.
At times, the gulf has been enormous and embarrassing.
Rewind to 1991 and an entire Wales squad sitting grim-faced at a postmatch function listening to an Australian comedian gaining cheap laughs at their expense.
Just hours earlier the team had been a laughing stock on the pitch as New South Wales handed out a 71-8 hiding.
After the comic had done his stuff, tour manager Clive Rowlands is said to have ranted and raged on the bus taking the Welsh party back to their hotel.
Welsh rugby came close to hitting rock bottom on that trip and in the process learned lessons that ring true today.
One of those involves always being realistic about the challenge ahead.
In his book, Raising the Dragon: A Clarion Call to Welsh Rugby, Robert Jones recalls the then Wales coach Ron Waldron describing David Campese as a “s **** y-arsed winger” during his pre-match talk.
Campese was a bit more than that. In fact, he was a lot more than that.
He couldn’t have heard the comment.
But the legendary flyer, as close to a rugby magician as there’s been, went on to have a blinder, anyway, scoring five tries.
Evidently, Welsh rugby’s amateurera analysis department – which may or may not have served the then national coach with that piece of intelligence about one of the most exciting wings the world has seen – was still refining its act.
There is no Campo in Australia’s team this weekend, but there are conjurors such as Folau, Beale, Foley and Genia. Any loose kicking to that lot, along the lines of the stuff dished up by the Wales half-backs against Scotland last weekend, and, as sure as night follows day, the celebratory strains of Waltzing Matilda will echo around Principality Stadium.
The other side of the coin is that the quartet could be put under pressure if Wales are able to set in place the platform for the likes of Jonathan Davies and George North to carry ball.
During their difficult season, Australia have been awful in defence at times, while their line-out has spluttered, their scrum took a pasting off New Zealand last time out and their front five gave away six penalties between them. Australia are missing the retired Stephen Moore at hooker and they are struggling to settle on a top-notch blindside flanker, though youngster Jack Dempsey is showing
promise. It is up to the hosts to exploit such issues.
If Wales are to win, half-backs Gareth Davies and Gareth Anscombe have to boss the game and Gatland could also do with Hadleigh Parkes returning to his best.
His team will need to be physical at breakdowns and play Hooper and Pocock off the ball.
High-quality carrying and efficient ball presentation would help combat the pair, too, but let no one underestimate the scale of the challenge.
Nor would it hurt for the Lions in the starting line-up, led by Alun Wyn Jones, to perform as well as they did against Scotland. It will not be the end of the world if Wales lose, but a win would send confidence soaring.
ANYONE FOR A GAMBLE?
Gamble at your peril, mind. In 2013, a punter from Tonyrefail wagered £30,000 on Wales to beat Australia, only for Quade Cooper to get out of his hotel bed on the right side and produce a display that had even Barry John applauding.
“My partner wanted a pair of slippers from John Lewis but we’ll have to leave that now,” the chap later joked as he counted his losses.
Australia can be relied on to carry a heartbreaker or two in their ranks.
Still, Wales may just have enough to edge it.
But anyone gambling £30,000 on this encounter should brace themselves for a nervous evening.
Michael Cheika will be happy his Australia team has been handed underdog status
Warren Gatland has stressed the importance of continuity in the build-up to today’s game against the Wallabies Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand) Romain Poite, Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand) Simon Mc Dowell (Ireland) BBC2 from 5pm; S4C from 4.50pm.