Wales vs Australia: Warren Gatland puts Wales squad through hell to earn Wallaby win

Gatland’s men have somehow managed to master the art of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory

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The Independent Online

There is a clock ticking on a Welsh website that later this afternoon will slowly, painfully turn to 2,167.

It marks the number of days since Wales last beat rugby union’s big three with a 21-18 victory over Australia in 2008.

In the intervening six years, they have succumbed to 20 straight defeats to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. For a side rich with such an array of talent that made up nearly half of Warren Gatland’s original British and Irish Lions touring party, it is a record that defies belief.

Gatland’s men have somehow managed to master the art of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, the most recent being the late penalty try in the second Test in South Africa this summer, which resulted in a 31-30 defeat.

As well as failing to play to the death on numerous occasions, they have been undone in the opening exchanges by the superior pace of their southern-hemisphere opposition.

But steadily, they have edged ever closer to that elusive win. In their last four Australia tests, Wales have lost by a combined total of a 12 points and the belief in the camp is that the time is finally nigh for the millstone to be lifted from their necks.

To get to that point, the players have been brutalised from dusk till dawn in what prop Paul James described as “the toughest Welsh camp we’ve been in”, possibly even worse than the infamous trip to Poland where they mixed early-morning cryotheraphy chamber visits with wrestling their teammates in an eastern European gymnasium.

Greco-Roman has been replaced by cycling in altitude chambers and three daily ‘cryo’ visits to ensure Gatland’s squad are at their peak come the whistle on the new £3.1 million state-of-the-art pitch at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday, one that captain Sam Warburton said “he had always dreamed of playing on”.

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Warren Gatland warned against the prospect of facing a wounded Wallabies side (Getty)

It is a Wales squad with a few twists and turns from the norm, the most notable being the decision for George North to move from the wing to outside centre for only the second time in his international career, the last being against France in the Six Nations earlier this year.

It is a selection not out of choice but necessity with Jonathan Davies unable to recover from a shoulder injury picked up in Clermont Auvergne’s European Champions Cup defeat to Saracens two weeks ago, while Scott Williams also remains missing with a hamstring problem.

For the Australian midfield, it means they ace a double human battering ram in North and Jamie Roberts and, while there is no denying North’s attacking quality - he scored four tries for Northampton in the recent win over the Ospreys - his occasionally frail defence will be something Australia will look to unpick.

Wales backs coach Rob Howley insisted he had no qualms about North’s role in midfield. “Having a fellow Lion alongside him will give him confidence,” said the former Wales scrum-half. “I’m looking forward to the partnership. We still think that George is in his best position on the wing but we’re more than confident he can fill the space at 13.”

Howley’s former position of No.9 has long been a talking point the length and breadth of Wales with Rhys Webb preferred to start over the vastly experienced Mike Phillips, the thinking being that Webb and Dan Biggar have clicked with some panache for the Ospreys this season so far.

There are no other real surprises in the backs but there were eyebrows raised at Gatland’s decision to select Bath loosehead James instead of Wales centurion Gethin Jenkins, the understanding being that Gatland hopes to initially unpick Australia in the set pieces.

James described himself as “lying in my room like a zombie” off the back of the rigours of pre-match training over the past two weeks, and talked of players being sick after sessions, such is the intensity.

“They’ve pushed us to the limit this week and hopefully that’ll help us going into the game on Saturday and starting well,” he said. “We haven’t beat them [rugby’s big three] for a long time so it’s a big thing.

“We’ve come close the last few times and the start is massive for us. That’s why we’ve been put through our paces last week and this week.”

Meanwhile, the English-born and partly Australian-raised Jake Ball gets the nod over the fit and in-form Bradley Davies in the second row.

Question marks surely remain over the selection of Dan Lydiate in the back row given he is currently club-less after Racing Metro agreed to release him after just 17 months in Paris.

In fitness tests, though, Lydiate has repeatedly come out in the top five and Howley said: “He sets the tone in terms of defence, and the way he’s come back and conditioned himself is impressive - he’s worked pretty hard.”

Australia are, in theory ripe for the picking with a new coach in Michael Cheika following the abrupt departure of his predecessor Ewen McKenzie.

Gatland, however, has already warned against the prospect of a wounded Wallaby while Wales will have to overcome what is increasingly becoming a psychological hurdle against the big three, although not a hurdle they are willing to admit.

“With the World Cup on the horizon and the senior players that we really do have to get a win over one of these boys to be considered one of the best teams in the world,” said Warburton.

The hope, the expectation is that it’ll finally be 10th time lucky for Wales against the Wallabies this weekend.

Wales Team

Leigh Halfpenny (Toulon), Alex Cuthbert (Cardiff), George North (Northampton), Jamie Roberts (Racing Metro), Liam Williams (Scarlets), Dan Biggar (Ospreys), Rhys Webb (Ospreys), Paul James (Bath), Richard Hibbard (Gloucester), Samson Lee (Scarlets), Jake Ball (Scarlets), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys), Dan Lydiate (Unattached), Sam Warburton, captain (Cardiff), Taulupe Faletau (Newport).

Replacements:

Scott Baldwin (Ospreys), Gethin Jenkins (Cardiff, Rhodri Jones (Scarlets), Bradley Davies (Wasps), Justin Tipuric (Ospreys),

Mike Phillips (Racing Metro), Rhys Priestland (Scarlets), Cory Allen (Cardiff).

Autumn schedule:

(All games on Saturday)

8 November: v Australia

KO 2.30pm; 15 November: v Fiji, KO 2.30pm; 22 November: v New Zealand KO 2.30pm;  29 November: v South Africa KO 2.30pm;

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