The Wallabies find themselves under pressure before the inital whistle in Cardiff has even been blown, but they should still edge out the Welsh.
Australia lost 22-24 the last time they played Wales, a defeat that saw the end of Eddie Jones’s tenure as coach. Jones’s successor, John Connolly, has decided to experiment with his touring squad earlier than expected, mixing up the backline and taking the bold step of playing an inside centre at scrumhalf. Many believe in Matt Giteau’s potential to succeed at No 9, but until he gets out onto the park at Cardiff, it is hard to know what to expect, as he is an unknown quantity in this position at senior level.
The fact that the Australia ‘A’ team lost to the Ospreys on Wednesday night should further motivate the Wallabies, as that losing side contained a number of Test players, and national pride would have taken a knock.
It is for this reason that Connolly may decide to reshuffle his backline to a more conventional formation, with Giteau reverting to 12, Larkham to 10 and the Queensland Reds’ Josh Valentine moving into the starting team at scrumhalf. Sticking to his guns as is would be the brave move by Connolly; one that could pay huge dividends, or ultimately place the experimental tactics on the back burner indefinitely. It promises to be a very interesting game for neutral viewers.
The Wallaby midield is a classy outfit on paper, with Mat Rogers, Stephen Larkham and Lote Tuqiri all being inherently dangerous players. How they gel as a combination, and whether Giteau can provide them with good ball from the set pieces and rucks will determine their success on Saturday.
Wales’s midfield is no less impressive, with Stephen Jones, Gavin Henson and the returning Tom Shanklin being an established and successful unit in recent times. Henson in particular will be a danger man, as he has rediscovered some form in the Heineken Cup, and the home side will realise that the Aussies are vulnerable in this area. A good platform layed by the forwards will allow these men to release the attacking potential of winger Shane Williams, and former skipper Gareth Thomas will also play a vital role in carrying the ball over the advantage line whether he’s running out wide or receiving a crash ball between the centres.
The home team boast a strong back row, with Martyn Williams and Ryan Jones having been capped for the British Lions on last year’s tour to New Zealand. Connolly has opted to nullify the big boys by including Wycliff Palu at No 8, and Rocky Elsom on the blindside. These two men have a massive job to do for the Aussies, as gaining ground is so important in the forward-oriented games typical in northern hemisphere conditions. Wallaby captain Phil Waugh will play his part as a fetcher at the breakdown, but may also take up a greater role as a ball-carrier in a situation that favours the close game.
Much of the result centres around the performance of the respective tight fives. Providing front-foot ball will be a priority, especially since the new-look Wallabies backline will require additional room to work their magic. The experience of Dan Vickerman and Nathan Sharpe will be invaluable in the line-out, and they undoubtedly have the wood over their Welsh counterparts.
The scrums should be far more competitive, with newcomers to Test rugby Rodney Blake and Tai McIsaac (12 caps between them) set for a big challenge against comparative veterans Gethin Jenkins (36) and Adam Jones (33). Al Baxter (38 caps) will bring parity to the front row, even although he is packing down in the unfamiliar position of loosehead.
The Wallabies by less than 10. Wales will give the Aussies a tough contest, but the men from Down Under possess too much class to be kept at bay for long. However, if the Welsh pack can dominate, it could be a second-tour defeat for the Aussies. It is unlikely to be a loose match and nothing less than a big game by the visiting forwards will be required.
Wales team: 15 Kevin Morgan, 14 Gareth Thomas, 13 Tom Shanklin, 12 Gavin Henson, 11 Shane Williams, 10 Stephen Jones, 9 Dwayne Peel, 8 Ryan Jones, 7 Martyn Williams, 6 Jon Thomas, 5 Ian Evans, 4 Ian Gough, 3 Gethin Jenkins, 2 Matthew Rees, 1 Adam Jones.
Replacements: 16 Rhys Thomas, 17 Duncan Jones, 18 Chris Horsman, 19 Alun Wyn Jones, 20 Mike Phillips, 21 James Hook, 22 Mark Jones.
Australia: 15 Chris Latham, 14 Clyde Rathbone, 13 Lote Tuqiri, 12 Stephen Larkham, 11 Cameron Shepherd, 10 Mat Rogers, 9 Matt Giteau, 8 Wycliff Palu, 7 Phil Waugh (c), 6 Rocky Elsom, 5 Dan Vickerman, 4 Nathan Sharpe, 3 Rodney Blake, 2 Tai McIsaac, 1 Al Baxter.
Replacements: 16 Brendan Cannon, 17 Benn Robinson, 18 Mark Chisholm, 19 Stephen Hoiles, 20 Josh Valentine, 21 Mark Gerrard, 22 Adam Ashley-Cooper.
By Jon Cardinelli