Stakes high as Wales seek to boost world rankings
Wales and Australia have got to know each other so well in the past 14 months that there will be little demand for jersey-swapping after this afternoon’s encounter in Cardiff but the sixth meeting between the teams since October 2011 will have an added piquancy because the next time the Wallabies take the field it will be in Brisbane next June for the first Test against the Lions.
The Lions will be led by Warren Gatland. They wanted the Wales head coach to take the entire season off to focus on the tour but he and his employers insisted that he be freed for the final two matches of the autumn series against New Zealand and Australia.
Wales need a victory and Gatland’s return last week coincided with their best performance of the month against New Zealand, although it came in the second half when 33 points down.
Defeats by Argentina and Samoa had left the men in red red-faced and, if they lose to the Wallabies, who are weary after playing a record 16 Tests in the last 12 months and so ravaged by injury that 28 players who have been involved in the last two years are unavailable, they will be in the third group of seeds when the 2015 World Cup draw is made on Monday.
Gatland said when he was announced as the Lions head coach in September that he would take more notice of how players performed in the autumn than in the Six Nations, acknowledging that the standard would be higher.
It has been the same tale of some narrow defeats and a few hammerings and at the start of the final weekend of fixtures the closest a home union has come to beating Australia, New Zealand or South Africa was England’s one-point defeat by the Springboks.
The stock of some of Wales’s players has fallen. Players who were regarded as Test certainties then, such as Jamie Roberts, Mike Phillips, Gethin Jenkins, Toby Faletau and even Sam Warburton have reputations to salvage while Rhys Priestland and James Hook, for instance, look outsiders to make the squad.
“It is up to me to deliver and I know I have to,” said Roberts, who was the man of the series on the Lions last tour to South Africa in 2009 when, converted to inside-centre, he forged a strong partnership with Brian O’Driscoll.
Secondrow Ian Evans, who is ruled out after failing a test on a knee problem yesterday afternoon. Cardiff Blues’ Lou Reed replaces him.
In the returning David Pocock, Kurtley Beale and Berrick Barnes, Australia have world-class players who can make the difference in tight matches. As a former All Black, Gatland knows what it takes to come out on the right side in a tight match against high-quality opponents but, as he looks at his Lions notebook, he will reflect that it is a trait shared by few of his potential squad for Australia. This weekend is the final chance for that to change.