Almost a quarter of a century ago, Wales beat Australia to finish third in a World Cup – the first World Cup, as a matter of fact, much of it staged in this neck of the union woods – and returned home with a strong sense that players like David Young, Richard Webster, Robert Jones and Jonathan Davies would quickly establish the team as the premier force in European rugby. All too soon, they received two 50-point spankings from New Zealand, were beaten at home by Romania, lost the brilliant Davies to the "other" code of the game and found themselves looking on miserably as England enjoyed a brief but meaningful golden age.
Today, Warren Gatland's team face the Wallabies at the self-same juncture of the seventh global gathering, with the self-same prize at stake. Are they riding for a fall this time? Probably not. Of course, they have yet to secure a podium finish, and any Australian side able to bring together Kurtley Beale, James O'Connor, Digby Ioane, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Berrick Barnes, Quade Cooper and Will Genia in the same back division will take some beating. But the current team is young and gifted, the head coach has four years' service left on his contract and the good times are ready to roll. Victory at Eden Park today will surely set things in motion.
One man who rates them highly is David Pocock, the Australian flanker whose strength and dynamism at the tackle area make him a major threat to Wales' bronze-medal ambitions. "They have a back row with a very high work rate – in general, they're a team who get around the field and really attack the rucks – and they have some real threats in their back line," he said yesterday. "Their centres are probably the hardest-running pairing in the tournament and they get on the front foot a lot of the time. Off the back of that, they have a lot of pace out wide."
Quite whether the loose-forward side of the equation works effectively without the suspended captain Sam Warburton is open to debate: Toby Faletau, a revelation at No 8 in this tournament, must play the breakaway role today and it is surely asking too much of him to make the same sort of impact in an unfamiliar position. But there is a likelihood that the Welsh front row will boss the second-string Wallaby scrummagers at the set-piece, and if this comes to pass it is possible to imagine Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies, the midfielders praised by Pocock, laying the foundations for victory.
Wales deserve nothing less. Two one-point defeats, by the Springboks and by the French in the semi-final, do not begin to tell the story of their time here, for had natural justice been at work on either occasion, the outcome would have been different. As James Horwill, whose deeply committed performances have justified his promotion to the Wallaby captaincy, was happy to acknowledge, the rugby produced by Gatland's players has been "some of the best we've seen in the tournament".
They will have to be on their level today: after that play-off win in 1987, it took Wales 18 years to beat the Wallabies again. Indeed, they have won only two of the last 17 contests between the two. But this Wales team, well conditioned after a summer of intensive physical preparation and brazen enough to attack from all areas of the field, has a more threatening look to it than any of its predecessors over the last couple of decades – even the side that won the Six Nations Grand Slam immediately on Gatland's arrival in 2008.
As James Hook, who has a point or two to prove today after his rough performance at outside-half on semi-final night, said this week: "It's important to keep our confidence high by expressing ourselves in this game the way we have throughout. If we could claim a Tri-Nations scalp in the southern hemisphere, it would give us a massive boost going into the Six Nations. At the start of the competition, we would have taken a semi-final place. Now, we want more. We want to go home with something, even if it's a bronze medal."Reuse content