Can Wales awake the dragon within?

In light of the events in this World Cup so far, this is rather an important game. If Wales lose to Australia and Ireland lose to Argentina, we could be looking down the barrel of an all-Southern Hemisphere semi final line up, and that would just be embarrassing.

So Wales, no pressure, but European rugby is relying on you. On current form however, it would rank as a serious shock were Wales to win. While they trailed for an hour against the part-timers of Canada, Australia were getting well-acquainted with the Japanese try line, crossing it on no fewer than 12 occasions.

At present, this does not appear a truly vintage Australian outfit but neither did the 2003 team and they nearly won the whole thing. The main quality they have is that they are Australian and therefore have an uncanny and highly irritating ability to peak at the right time and perform effectively under pressure when it matters most. Their team is packed with experience, players who have been in every situation imaginable on a rugby pitch and who will be surprised by nothing.

The Aussie front five remains their weakness but not nearly as much as two years ago, and the selection of Guy Shepherdson on the tighthead suggests that they may believe that they have the beating of Wales there. If they even win 40% of the ball then expect to see their electric back line pose some real questions. The fact that Australia have a clear edge in the lineout, orchestrated by Nathan Sharpe, may prove the difference between the sides.

Australia can also call on nearly 250 caps of experience at half back to pull the strings. The Gregan-Larkham axis has been around forever and they will be determined to play in their 3rd World Cup final together. That would be an extraordinary achievement and victory in this game is essential if that is to be accomplished.

The half back battle will be the key in this game. Dwayne Peel and Gregan will be at each other from the first whistle, Gregan organising his pack and getting in the referee’s ear, Peel sniping and looking for half a gap. They are both hugely influential in the team, as are the men outside them. Stephen Jones helped to turn the game when he was introduced against Canada but he has been short on rugby recently and this is his first real test. He will be required to control the match in the same way Larkham has for Australia for so many years. Larkham continues to be the puppetmaster for the Wallabies, prompting, distributing and bringing the best out of those around him.

The omission of James Hook from the starting line-up may rob Wales of the pace to exploit Larkham’s advancing years and there must have been a strong case to move him to 12. His battle with the outstanding Matt Giteau would have been worth the admission money on its own but Hook will now be expected to make a huge impact from the bench. The two starting backlines however are packed with talent. With the glaring exception of Shane Williams, both back lines are huge and the blend of pace and power could be intoxicating and gives this clash the potential to be one of the highlights of the tournament. It also has the potential to be a one-sided disappointment, but if Wales have one of their better days, neutrals (is anyone neutral when Australia are playing?) could be in for a real treat.

If the game goes to the formbook then Australia will win comfortably yet I have a nagging feeling that Wales have one huge performance in them in this tournament and Saturday would be a handy time and place for it. They will have to be at their very best to beat an Australian team that is not only the one side to have beaten the All Blacks for over a year, but has made a habit of peaking when it really matters.

By Stuart Peel