Wales' yearlong decline from World Cup semifinalist to not even a top-eight nation will be sealed on Saturday if Australia can end its turbulent tour of Europe with victory at Millennium Stadium.
A seventh straight test loss would condemn the rugby-mad Welsh to the third band of seeded teams for Monday's pool draw for the 2015 World Cup in London, a humiliating fall from grace for the current Six Nations champions.
And as if Wales' prospects weren't gloomy enough, David Pocock — one of the world's top flankers — makes his long-awaited return after a knee injury to lift a Wallaby team whose confidence is restored after back-to-back wins over England and Italy.
Everything points to a 20th win for Australia in 23 games against Wales, although coach Robbie Deans remains wary. "You don't win two (Six Nations) Grand Slams in the last four years (in 2008 and 2012) while also making the semifinals of the Rugby World Cup without being a quality outfit, and a resilient one," Deans said.
"If we were in their situation, I know the response I would be expecting. Cornered beasts are always the most dangerous; they have nowhere else to go but straight ahead." Being placed in a World Cup group with two tough opponents wouldn't be the only consequence of a fourth defeat on the spin for the Welsh. The blow to the pride and morale would be just as hurtful, especially coming in a season in which many players are looking to stake their claims for places in next year's British & Irish Lions squad.
"I think the game is massively important from a Welsh perspective, in terms of confidence and building on last week," said Wales coach Warren Gatland, who will lead the Lions to Australia next year. "From a Lions point of view, it's about some of the Welsh players putting their hands up in terms of selection. There are maybe a couple of lines going through a couple of names and they need to re-establish themselves."
Gatland, however, isn't too concerned about the ramifications regarding the upcoming World Cup draw. "If anyone is looking at us, when it comes around to 2015 and having had the preparation time together, I don't think any team particularly fancies getting Wales in their group," he said. "We were in a really tough group last time. It is luck of the draw."
Australia is assured of a top seeding for the World Cup draw, having rebounded well from losing its opening match on tour — an embarrassing 33-6 rout by France in Paris on Nov. 10. It's the final game in a long season for the Wallabies but having Pocock back, as one of three changes to the run-on line-up, will invigorate the team.
"David is one of the best in the world as a player, and is growing every day as a leader, so naturally we are delighted to have him back," Deans said. "While he has continued to contribute off the field, this tour has been one of frustration for him.
"His return comes at a time where we need fresh energy, as was evident at times during our test in Italy last weekend." Australia squeezed past the Azzurri 22-19, having held on to beat England 20-14 the previous Saturday.
Michael Hooper was one of Australia's best players in those games but he makes way for Pocock, with lock Kane Douglas replacing the suspended Sitaleki Timani and Tatafu Polota-Nau coming in for Stephen Moore at hooker in the other changes.
The Welsh have overhauled their pack by making four changes in a last-ditch bid to avoid a whitewash in November and December. Props Gethin Jenkins and Scott Andrews were recalled to the front row, Ian Evans took over from the injured lock Bradley Davies and Aaron Shingler was picked in place of flanker Ryan Jones.
Gatland is clinging to the belief that Wales' spirited second-half performance in the 33-10 loss to the All Blacks last weekend can spark an improved showing on Saturday. "We managed to retain 73 percent possession after the break against the All Blacks and win the territory battle, and we need to put Australia under similar pressure from the outset," he said.
"We have played them regularly over the last couple of years and have come close to winning on a number of occasions, but have not quite been able to get ourselves over the chalk of the finish line."
Wales: Leigh Halfpenny, Alex Cuthbert, Jonathan Davies, Jamie Roberts, Liam Williams; Rhys Priestland, Mike Phillips; Toby Faletau, Sam Warburton (captain), Aaron Shingler, Luke Charteris, Ian Evans, Scott Andrews, Matthew Rees, Gethin Jenkins. Reserves: Ken Owens, Ryan Bevington, Samson Lee, Ryan Jones, Justin Tipuric, Tavis Knoyle, Dan Biggar, Scott Williams.
Australia: Berrick Barnes, Nick Cummins, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Ben Tapuai, Drew Mitchell, Kurtley Beale, Nick Phipps; Wycliff Palu, David Pocock, Scott Higginbotham, Nathan Sharpe, Kane Douglas, Ben Alexander, Tatafu Polota Nau, Benn Robinson. Reserves: Stephen Moore, James Slipper, Sekope Kepu, Dave Dennis, Michael Hooper, Brendan McKibbin, Mike Harris, Digby Ioane.