Wales coach picks two playmakers as he hopes revival of attacking approach will help his side halt 12-game losing streak against Michael Cheika’s side
Never mind Warrenball, it has been Warrenfall each time Wales have met Australia since 2008. Wales’ nightmares come wrapped in green and gold, 12 successive defeats, the majority by less than a converted try, late tries and penalties dashing the dreams of the men in red.
There has been a common denominator in the run, summed up when the sides met in the World Cup at Twickenham in 2015. Wales under their head coach, Warren Gatland, have become a side who are supremely conditioned, organised and hard to break down but what has prevented them from being successful beyond the Six Nations – when they reached the World Cup semi-final in 2011, the only tier-one nation they defeated was Ireland – is poise under pressure.
In 2015, Wales had seven minutes when they were playing against 13 men, with Will Genia and Dean Mumm in the sin-bin, and another six against 14. They battered the Wallabies’ line but overlaps were squandered, running lines became scrambled and passes were mistimed. Australia won 15-6 on their way to the final, consigning Wales to a quarter-final where, although they scored a try from a kick, they wasted three prime opportunities through a lack of finesse.
Wales used to be the other way around, instinctive in possession but suffering from a lack of it after being overpowered. As Gatland enters the final two years of his contract, he is looking to resuscitate what used to come naturally in a country that produced players of the calibre of Barry John, Phil Bennett, Gerald Davies, John Dawes and Jonathan Davies. His side is going into the Principality Stadium almost naked, without an imposing centre after the mothballing of Jamie Roberts, and Australia are blinking at the sight.
“For the first time ever, I think, Wales have two playmakers,” said the Australia scrum-half Genia, referring to the selection of Owen Williams at 12 to complement the outside-half Dan Biggar. “Traditionally they like the two big centres, crash-and-bash style, so we will see a different picture and will have to anticipate what is coming on the day.”
Australia have gone for power in midfield in the form of two Fijians, Samu Kerevi and Tevita Kuridrani, but they have Bernard Foley, an outside-half who is adept at navigating his runners through heavy traffic, and Kurtley Beale at full-back, a player who resurrected his career at Wasps last season.
It was Beale who scored the try to win the game against Wales in 2012 when time was up. The rugby world stood before him then, but a capacity to self-destruct led him to swap Australia for Coventry, where he became the focal point of an attack-minded team. The experience so matured him that he turned down the offer of a new contract to return home for less money, drawn by the lure of the international stage and the prospect of redemption.
Beale, who has played at inside-centre for most of the year and is covering full-back because Israel Folau has been rested this month, has been one of the factors behind Australia’s revival this year after they started with a home defeat to Scotland and the leaking of 54 points to New Zealand in Sydney. He is a player whose shirt number means little: he is a master of opportunity who scans the field and while Australia will use their centres to get over the gainline, from then it will be about the powers of Foley and Beale to unpick the defence and free the menacing wings, Reece Hodge and Marika Koroibete.
If Australia had a defence to match their attack, they would be challenging New Zealand in the rankings. While the All Blacks have used this year to assess their strength in depth before the 2019 World Cup, the Wallabies head coach Michael Cheika’s focus has been identifying his best side and sandpapering the rough edges that have undermined his side since they reached the 2015 final.
Gatland’s dilemma against opponents with a multi-pronged attack is to balance the need to be more creative by remaining secure in defence. The Wales defence coach, Shaun Edwards, reckoned this week that an international team needed an average of 25 points to win a Test match, more than eight penalties, which is why they need to be less rigid when in possession without leaving themselves open.Leigh Halfpenny has come to sum up Wales. The full-back is the consummate professional, one of the most accurate goal-kickers of any era and a strong last line of defence. He has not offered enough in attack in recent years, staying on the margins rather than involving himself, as Beale will from 15.
Halfpenny has joined the Scarlets side that won the Pro12 flamboyantly last season. He is one of eight players from the region who will face Australia, along with Liam Williams who left for Saracens in the close season. Gatland is looking to the town that became synonymous with attacking rugby, Llanelli, hoping that in the past the future lies.Read more at theguardian.com