Australia’s tough year can end on high if history repeats itself in Wales
Record against Wales suggests Michael Cheika’s side can get back on track
Australia head coach Michael Cheika looks on during a training session in Newport, Wales. Photograph: by Dan Mullan/Getty Images
Preview: Australia v Wales
Principality Stadium, Saturday, 5.20
Live on TV: BBC2
When Wales were thrashed by New Zealand in the 1987 World Cup semi-final, their then manager, Clive Rowlands, remarked that all was not lost, they could fall back on beating England at Cardiff. They always did then with their neighbours not tasting success at the old Arms Park for 28 years from 1963.
The former England captain, John Scott, once said that all he could hear in the dressingroom before the match in Cardiff in 1979 was the knocking of knees. Defeat duly followed, although vagaries of selection then rather than a jinx tended to account for the run of failure in the Welsh capital, but as Australia seek refuge as they approach the end of a stormy year, it is not the last place they would have chosen to dock.
The Wallabies have won their past 13 internationals against Wales, often securing victory in the closing moments. They have won by a double-figure margin only twice in that run but their dominance over Wales is such that since losing to them in the 1987 World Cup third-place play-off, they have been beaten only twice in 28 Tests. While form favours Wales, who are on their best run of victories for five years, history is a counterweight to Australia’s sequence of nine defeats in 12 Tests since they won in Cardiff a year ago.
“I would say, not that I care, that the majority of guys in our team would not know about our run against Wales,” says the Australia head coach, Michael Cheika. “You always have to look at the 80 minutes ahead of you. Everything else is conjecture and small talk. It is great for a punter in a bar or cafe and the game is about getting people interested, but the bookies do not see it as an issue. We don’t mind running as the underdog: we will enjoy that status and get to Cardiff, where we love playing.”
Australia made the last World Cup final, but they are virtually back to where they were in 2014 when Cheika took over, the third head coach in little more than a year after Robbie Deans was sacked and Ewen McKenzie resigned. Their form since then has been more down than up: since losing to New Zealand in the World Cup final, they have played 39 internationals, winning 16 and drawing two. They have lost to England and Ireland in series at home and were beaten by Scotland in a one-off match in Sydney in 2017. They are sixth in the world rankings, climbing one place this week after Scotland’s defeat in Cardiff, and lost at home to Argentina in the Rugby Championship only to overturn a 31-7 half-time deficit in Salta three weeks later.
Yet on paper, they look at least as strong as Wales. Seven of Saturday’s side have won more than 50 caps, along with four of the replacements, and in Israel Folau, Kurtley Beale, David Pocock and Michael Hooper have players whose names would be mentioned in a selection meeting for a World XV.
“The side is very different from four years ago,” adds Cheika. “It was older and more experienced then: we only have 10 players who appeared in the last World Cup. That is a pretty big turnaround but I still believe that the groundwork we have been laying, getting players into the environment and giving them experience, will pay off.
“More often than not, you need the tough times to get to the good times. We have had an up and down four years and we will use that to get ready for the World Cup. Some of the pain and hurt we have felt this year will only help us, as will all the scars we collect. It is something I have experience with and I can see people in the team starting to change things because they do not want to feel that pain again.
“Some pennies dropped in players’ heads after the Argentina game. That was a pretty crazy experience and I am a big believer that those things will show how hungry you are to get what you want. Every team I am involved in seems to have these rollercoaster rides. In some crazy way, they help you deal with it when things become most frantic, when you really need it.
“We still have a bit to go and it will not be all upswing from here; you just set your dream and work out how you are going to achieve it. You have to believe and stay true the whole time. Enjoy the ride, mate; you can’t cry when it doesn’t go well for you but take the journey to its finish and make sure you are on top by then.”
Wales won six of their first eight matches with Australia in Cardiff, but the Wallabies have prevailed in 15 of the next 18 with the sides drawing in 2006. Patrick Cohn, an American mental games coach, wrote that an inability to beat one particular team over a long period of time can have a devastating effect on how you approach a game.
While Wales have not defeated the Wallabies this decade, New Zealand have done so 22 times, England nine, South Africa seven, Ireland five, Scotland three and France and Argentina twice. Rowlands may have had the solace of England, but defeat would leave Australia with Italy, next week’s opponents.