No sooner have Warren Gatland and his battered and bruised Wales team seen the back of one magnificent No 7 than another is gathering on the Cardiff horizon. With the 2012 Grand Slam winners’ place in the top eight of the IRB rankings at stake in their final autumn outing tomorrow, ahead of the draw for the 2015 World Cup in London on Monday, they could have done without the news that David Pocock will be returning at openside flanker for the opposition.
Having suffered a 33-10 defeat last Saturday at the hands of an All Blacks team inspired by Richie McCaw, Wales discovered yesterday that they would be facing the world’s second best operator in a No 7 jersey when the Wallabies roll up at the Millennium Stadium. Pocock has been absent since suffering a knee injury in the Rugby Championship match against New Zealand in August but has been named in the Australian XV for the final match of their European tour.
“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,” said Robbie Deans, the All Black full-back turned Wallabies’ head coach. “While he has continued to contribute off the field, this tour has been one of frustration for him, but we were not prepared to take any risks and potentially compromise either the player or the team, in terms of his fitness. The upside to the wait is that his return comes at a time where we need fresh energy, as was evident at times during our Test in Italy last weekend.”
Wales know all about the energy of the 24-year-old Brumbie. Pocock has lined up against Wales in seven Tests and won the lot, claiming two tries, a clutch of man of the match awards and captaining Australia to a clean sweep in their three-match home series last June. He will not be captain this time, however, that honour remaining with Nathan Sharpe on the occasion of his 116th and final Test.
As for Wales, on a run of six successive defeats and facing a first-ever autumn whitewash, they have made four changes – all in the pack. Aaron Shingler is preferred to Ryan Jones at blindside flanker, while Gethin Jenkins and Scott Andrews come into the front row and Ian Evans replaces Bradley Davies in the second row. Davies is still suffering from the first minute knockout blow dealt to him by the All Black hooker Andrew Hore last Saturday.
“I was actually out cold for a couple of seconds on Saturday, but when I came to I had lost all my short-term memory,” Davies said. “The last thing I could remember was being in college doing a plumbing course and cutting my finger with a hacksaw.”
The Cardiff Blues lock has accepted an apology from Hore, who has been banned for five weeks. “The incident has gone and I hold no grudges,” Davies said. “He has called and texted me to apologise and I would like to leave it there.”
Wales have not won since their clean sweep of the Six Nations and subsequent end of season fixture against the Barbarians but there are signs of promise on Gatland’s return from Lions duty last weekend. “We need to pick up again where we left off in the second half last week,” Gatland said.” We managed to retain 73 per cent 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.
“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. Both sides have had injuries to cope with, but there is every reason for optimism.”
The Wallabies have won their last seven Tests against Wales but their head coach is expecting a tough battle. “You don’t win two Grand Slams in the last four years while also making the semi-finals 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.”