On Saturday night Wales host Australia in what promises to be a thrilling conclusion to the Autumn Internationals. Both sides recovered from a loss in their opening games of the series to win three on the bounce and they will be determined round off their campaigns with a win. Wales will be looking to claim their first victory over one of the southern hemisphere big three since beating the visitors five years ago. The Welsh have registered just two wins and a draw against the Wallabies in the last decade, but after a considerable Welsh influence helped the British and Irish Lions to a series win in the summer, Warren Gatland’s men will believe that they have enough to overcome the Aussies.
Gatland has recalled the big guns after resting them during last Friday’s victory. He has made nine changes to the side that beat Tonga.
Wales’ backline will be bolstered by the return of Alex Cuthbert. The Lion returns to the wing after recovering from the ankle injury that has, so far, kept him out of the November test matches. He will rejoin Leigh Halfpenny and George North, to complete one of world rugby’s most electrifying back threes. Owen Williams keeps his place in the midfield after scoring in last week’s win. He will be joined by Scott Williams, who has been recalled after recovering from a toe injury. Owen Williams tore through the Tongans with pace and precision and namesake Scott showed plenty of promise against the Pumas.
After giving each fly-half ample opportunity to impress, Gatland has decided to give Dan Biggar the nod ahead of Rhys Priestland, who has been left on the bench. But there is no place in the match-day squad for the versatile James Hook, who has not been released from his club, Perpignan. Biggar will be joined by Mike Philips who is set to return at scrum half.
Sam Warburton returns to skipper the side at seven. He will be joined by the infallible Toby Faleutau and Dan Lydiate. The Warburton-Lydiate partnership poses serious threats to Australian aspirations of quick and clean ball. The Toulon-bound Ian Evans retains his place in the engine room after a man of the match performance against Tonga. He will rekindle his partnership with Alun-Wyn Jones in the absence of Bradley Davies, who is set to undergo shoulder surgery.
Gethin Jenkins will win his 101st cap in the front row. He will pack down alongside the foreboding figure of Richard Hibbard, along with Rhodri Jones, who has proved to be a robust replacement for the injured Adam Jones, and the Welsh front row will fancy their chances against their Wallaby counterparts.
Ewen McKenzie has made two changes to the side that edged past Scotland last weekend, ahead of their trip to the Millennium stadium. Adam Ashley-Cooper and Nick Cummins have been recalled to side after serving a one-match ban. The pair were among six players who were banned by the Australian coach for inappropriate drinking in Dublin.
Ashley-Cooper replaces Mike Harris at centre with Christian Leali’lifano moving to 12. Nick Cummins reclaims his place on the wing at the expense of Chris Feauai-Sautia, the Honey Badger joining Joe Tomane and Israel Folau in the back three. Quade Cooper is set to make his 50th appearance for the Wallabies. The Australian vice captain has thrived in his new role and he has been their most influential player during the autumn internationals. His creativity and dynamism has inspired his backline and tormented opposition defences.
Cooper will resume his formidable partnership with Will Genia, who retains the nine shirt despite a shaky performance against the Scots. The Scottish pack harassed him to great effect last weekend, and if Wales are able to do the same, they will have a chance of suffocating this potent Australian offence. But Genia only needs an inch, and if they give him it, he will stretch the Welsh defence and provide his side with plenty of impetus.
The pack remains unchanged although McKenzie has reshuffled the bench. Tatafu Polota-Nau, Benn Robinson, and back-rower Dave Dennis have been brought in as replacements.
All eyes on
Israel Folau has been a revelation to rugby union since switching codes. He is impeccable under the high ball and scintillating with it in hand. His pace and acute sense of timing make him almost impossible to stop. Folau is undoubtedly the Wallabies’ most consistent performer, scored nine tries in his last 14 Tests. Wales will seriously struggle to keep him quiet, and Folau’s presence will have certainly shaped their kicking tactics, as they will be very cautious about booting anything his way.
Leigh Halfpenny’s consistency is an integral part of this Welsh side’s success. He has been faultless throughout their autumn campaign – off the kicking tee, under the high ball and in defence. But he will be tested by the tactical kicking of Quade Cooper and co, and he will need to find a way of beating his opposite man in the air as the Australians will look to isolate the towering Folau and the vertically challenged Halfpenny. Halfpenny’s heroics proved to be the difference between the Lions and the Aussies during the summer, but will he be able to inspire his country to the same success?
Head to head: Toby Faletau v Ben Mowen
Ben Mowen has flourished in his new captaincy role. He has been Australia’s rock at the base of their scrum, in the lineout and in defence. As he showed against the Lions in the summer, he thrives against the brutish physicality of the Welsh forwards and he is more than capable of matching and surpassing the intensity they bring. But on Saturday, he faces the daunting challenge of going toe to toe with world rugby’s in-form No 8, Toby Faletau. He has been flawless for Wales in every facet of his game. The clash between these two titans promises to be huge, but something has got to give – let’s just hope it is not the ground beneath them.
The Australian back-line will certainly prey on the naivety of the Welsh midfield and the Williams duo will need to produce something special to withstand the Aussie onslaught. The Australian pack will struggle against the physicality and tenacity of the Welsh pack but they have plenty of quality and experience and they should be able to secure enough ball to allow Genia and Cooper to work their magic. The Australians always seem to be able to grind out a result against the Welsh, regardless of form and on Saturday night they will do the same. Australia by 5.
By Nathan Hyde (@NathanHyde2)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images