CARDIFF, Wales (AP) — If everything had gone right for the Wallabies this month, they would be playing for a Grand Slam at Millennium Stadium on Saturday. Though that dream flopped at the first hurdle at Twickenham, there seems to be no less riding on their test with Wales.
For Australia, a victory would help to balm some of the pain of the series defeat to the British and Irish Lions in midyear. The series could have been won (and lost) in the first two matches, but it went to a decider and a Lions side packed with 10 Welsh starters crushed the Wallabies 41-16 in Sydney.
Nearly five months later, many of them face each other again. "There's a bit of spice in it, especially after the Lions," Wallabies fullback Israel Folau said. "A lot of the Welsh boys were involved in that series and it's still clear in our minds."
For the Welsh, there are only four survivors from their last win over Australia five years ago. Since then they have lost eight straight, the last three of them heartbreakers. In June last year, replacement flyhalf Mike Harris kicked an injury-time penalty to win 25-23 in Melbourne, and a week later a Berrick Barnes penalty in the 74th minute earned a 20-19 win in Sydney. At Cardiff a year ago, Kurtley Beale crossed with 26 seconds left for a 14-12 result.
This week, Wales defence coach Shaun Edwards noted, "This is the game everyone has been waiting for." That's mainly because it's the Wallabies, in the southern hemisphere's big three, against which the Welsh have the least mental block. The Welsh have only one win in 22 tests against the big three — a pitiful record on Warren Gatland's watch — and are still a long way from touching New Zealand or South Africa, as evidenced by the 24-15 shellacking they took from the Springboks three weeks ago.
But neither are the Wallabies a true gauge of the southern hemisphere's strength, as they've been whipped everywhere by the All Blacks and Springboks, too. But under coach Ewen McKenzie, who took over after the Lions series, they're coming out of transition and regaining some swagger after successive wins over Italy, Ireland and Scotland.
"We are enjoying playing in big venues in front of hostile crowds, but being consistent in that space is where we want to be," McKenzie said. Wales, champions of Europe for the last two years, need a victory not only for some credibility but also to lay a marker for the 2015 World Cup. This could be the last time the teams meet before they face each other in a World Cup pool game at Twickenham, unless the cash-strapped Australian Rugby Union come begging next autumn and Wales is willing to pay another reported fee of 750,000 pounds (A$1.3 million) as they for did this fixture.
The ARU's future intent could hinge on Saturday's result. There's a question mark over how much gas the Wallabies have left for their 15th and final test of the year. Set to appear in every test are the entire front row of James Slipper, Stephen Moore and Sekope Kepu, loose forwards Michael Hooper and captain Ben Mowen, scrumhalf Will Genia and Folau. The forward pack is intact for a third straight weekend.
By comparison, nine of the recalled Welsh were rested for the Tonga game last week, and Lions winger Alex Cuthbert has made a faster-than-expected recovery from an ankle injury to play his first match this month.
Gatland, a former All Black hooker, praised the big three's "never-give-in attitude," and hoped some of it has rubbed off onto his team. "You fight until your last breath with everything you've got. That's the mindset," Gatland said. "You have to play for 80 minutes and there are periods of the game where they are going to come at you and you are going to have to soak up some pressure. It's going to be physical."
Wales: Leigh Halfpenny, Alex Cuthbert, Owen Williams, Scott Williams, George North, Dan Biggar, Mike Phillips; Toby Faletau, Sam Warburton (captain), Dan Lydiate, Alun-Wyn Jones, Ian Evans, Rhodri Jones, Richard Hibbard, Gethin Jenkins. Reserves: Ken Owens, Ryan Bevington, Samson Lee, Ryan Jones, Justin Tipuric, Rhodri Williams, Rhys Priestland, Liam Williams.
Australia: Israel Folau, Joe Tomane, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Christian Leali'ifano, Nick Cummins, Quade Cooper, Will Genia; Ben Mowen (captain), Michael Hooper, Scott Fardy, James Horwill, Rob Simmons, Sekope Kepu, Stephen Moore, James Slipper. Reserves: Tatafu Polota-Nau, Benn Robinson, Ben Alexander, Kane Douglas, Dave Dennis, Nic White, Mike Harris, Bernard Foley.