Later today, Wales will take on Australia in their final group match in the rugby World Cup. Both countries have qualified from the “group of death”, with England (the hosts) failing to go through having lost to both Wales (28-25) and Australia (33-13) the last two Saturdays. Although both Wales and Australia have qualified for the quarter finals, the winner of Group A will have a much easier quarterfinal.
The winner of today’s Wales v Australia match, and hence of Group A, will play the runner-up of Group B, which could be either Scotland or Japan. The loser today will be runner-up of Group A, and they will face South Africa (who have topped Group B) in the quarter final, a much more difficult proposition. So, I would imagine both Wales and Australia will be going all-out to try to win this afternoon’s match.
Warren Gatland has gone for a very bold team in his attempt to top Group A. Normally Gatland’s selection policy is pretty conservative – he likes to stick with the players he knows well and whom he feels can perform at the highest level in big-game situations. But, on Thursday he surprised everyone with a few unexpected selections. He has brought George North into the centre, with Wales so depleted in that area due to injuries, and moved Liam Williams from full-back to wing. In at full-back is Gareth Anscombe, the New Zealander who has pledged his senior future to Wales by using his Welsh-heritage, after representing New Zealand at junior level. For the last season he has been playing his rugby for the Cardiff Blues; but I think I am right in saying that this has mainly been at outside half. However, I do believe he has some Super 15 experience playing at full-back, so hopefully he will slot in there quite easily.
Blind-side flanker Dan Lydiate is dropped, replaced by open-side flanker Justin Tipuric. According to Gatland, this is because Lydiate has a facial injury from the match against Fiji; but I cannot help feeling that he wanted to play two open-side flankers in Tipuric and Warburton to counter the Wallabies’ marauding pair of Hooper and Pocock. The breakdown will be a major area of contest, and it could be argued that it is where Wales won the game against England and where England lost the game against Australia.
The final surprise in the selection is that veteran loose-head prop Gethin Jenkins is dropped in favour of Paul Jones. Again, according to Gatland this is because Jenkins is feeling the strain of three matches in a short space of time, and Gatland wants to give him a break before the quarter finals. Whether the change is also to try to shore-up the creaking Welsh scrum is a distinct possibility; whilst Gethin Jenkins is almost unsurpassed as an loose-head prop in open play, his scrummaging is not as strong as Paul Jones’ and this is an area where Wales have looked distinctly shaky in their matches against both England and Fiji.
I have to say that Australia were very impressive against England; and Wales have not beaten them since 2008. In each of the last 5 or 6 times that we have played them we have lost by just a few points each time; and on more than one occasion have been leading going into the last few minutes. Hopefully these near misses will galvanise the Welsh team to a win this time, with the prize being a much easier path into the World Cup semifinals.