Wales travelled to Australia believing a Test victory over the Wallabies was possible and a series win potentially within their grasp. The Welsh have deservedly replaced England at fourth in the IRB world rankings but although close in both tests, the first win against Australia in forty years has remained elusive. Wales continue to look the northern hemisphere team most likely to get a win down under when the teams meet in the final test of the series in an afternoon game in Sydney on Saturday.
Australia welcomes Kurtley Beale back after injury and his recent encounter with the Brisbane police. Beale is one of the most talented and instinctive players in the game but hasn’t played for the Wallabies since the 3rd/4th place play-off against Wales at the world cup. Will Genia, inarguably the best scrum half in the world, has had a major influence on the series and the Wallaby backline will again pose a big threat for the much vaunted Welsh defence. Spare a thought for last week’s match winner Mike Harris who has been dropped from the match 22.
The battle of the breakdown in the first two tests has been won decisively by David Pocock and as a result Sam Warburton’s performance has come under scrutiny back home. While there is still huge support for the Wales captain, his automatic selection is being questioned by some, for the first time in his professional career. Warburton is looking in need of a rest. His long season has been a roller coaster ride and he’s had more than his share of injuries. Wales is fortunate to have a player of the caliber of Justin Tipuric pushing for selection and if Warburton’s injury woes continue the Ospreys flanker may get the opportunity to establish himself in the Welsh side.
Rhys Priestland has had a disappointing tour and it was curious that James Hook got no game time during the second test in Melbourne. It is a further surprise that Hook is not starting in the final test as his creative ability and willingness to move the ball could unleash the potent Welsh backline and the more George North and Alex Cuthbert play the more dangerous they seem. One would hope that if Wales are not having it all their own way on Saturday that Hook gets an opportunity to show his class.
It would be over simplistic to suggest that Warren Gatland’s absence from active coaching during the tour of Australia has been the reason for the Welsh underperformance. However, the team looks to be missing his experience, guile and leadership. If he misses the next Six Nations because of his Lions coaching responsibilities, the WRU will be looking for Rob Howley and his fellow assistant coaches to raise their game.
Saturday’s game will be the fifth in nine months between the two sides. Australia is unbeaten in these games though the average winning margin has been less than five points. This would suggest that, as with the All Blacks, the Wallabies have the ability to close out big games. By the same token, the teams are so close, that a Wales win is just a matter of time and a day game in Sydney might give Wales the opportunity to beat the Wallabies and strengthen their place in the world rankings.