The challenge for Wales is a mathematical cinch at the Millennium Stadium today. Beat Australia by 15 points or more and earn themselves a top seeding in Monday's World Cup draw that would ensure they do not have to face any of the southern hemisphere giants in the group stages in New Zealand in 2011. Always assuming that England lose to the All Blacks at Twickenham, of course.
On the cynical side of the bridge, everyone takes the last part of the equation to be a given, but nobody – not even Max Boyce, that patron saint of the daftly patriotic, himself – is truly anticipating the dream scenario to unfold. Despite their improvement under Warren Gatland, the Six Nations champions remain in a place where any sort of win over a Tri-Nations team is to be celebrated. The points difference is merely for mathematicians and spread-betters.
Saying that, there is a palpable sense of expectation in Cardiff, one that was displayed with unashamed gusto at the Millennium yesterday, following Wales's final training session.
Robert Howley, the backs coach, even went so far as to suggest that Wales were "destined" to beat one of the big three for just the third time in 21 years. "I've told the players this week that we deserve to win a big Test match," said Howley. "We've put in an enormous amount of work over the last few weeks and stretched New Zealand and South Africa to the limit. We need to win and hopefully this weekend will bring the victory we are destined to get."
An amalgamation of their first half against New Zealand and their second against South Africa and Wales would prevail comfortably. The problem is that this still inconsistent outfit are obviously just as capable of combining their second half against New Zealand and their first half against South Africa, and losing comfortably. When you add into the mix the fact that this Australia side are also wonderfully erratic then nothing can or will be taken for granted this afternoon. No, not even the Wallabies scrum.
There was a time, not so very long ago, when the Welsh pack would target the visiting set-piece, confident that they could make a match-defining dent. They did so in their success in 2005 and also the drawn match of 2007; the Australian scrum creaked like a little old lady on both occasions. Not any longer. Under their new coach, Robbie Deans (another Kiwi), they have been so transformed in this area that Wales have had to put nose to bootstrap these last five days merely to compete.
"There has been more of a focus on it this week, both against the machine and live contests," said Wales forwards coach Robin McBride. "We know we have to step up from last week and we've also spent time on the computers analysing all the fine details. Australia have addressed that issue and improved in that area, but we will certainly give them a test."
If they don't, the Test could indeed be over, as in Matt Giteau the Australians have a playmaker who is only now achieving the level of recognition he has long deserved on this side of Planet Rugby.
Jonathan Davies, the fly-half great, this week labelled him "the best No 10 in the world – and that includes Dan Carter", while Gatland was only slightly more reserved in the effusive stakes. "Matt Giteau is the key man for Australia with his goalkicking and left foot," said Gatland. "But we can replicate the work we did on Carter last week. We felt Dan was relatively quiet and he was probably not as dominant as he had been in previous games."
The problem was that although Wales might have "got" Carter, they still "got" All Blacked and they must guard against a similar eventuality befalling them today when they take on perhaps the most opportunistic team in existence. Australia's three-quarter quality is as strong as ever, while a worry for Wales has been their inability to cross the try-line against South Africa and New Zealand despite creating many chances.
"We must take them this time," said Gatland, without the merest whiff of a caveat. Otherwise Australia will be toasting their first European clean sweep since 1996.Reuse content