First the good news: there will not be a budding pugilist in the opposition ranks when Wales face the final bout of their up and down year at the Millennium Stadium. Last week the All Blacks rolled into town with their right-hooking hooker. Seven days on, the Wallabies are in Cardiff but without Quade Cooper.
Having squared up to the Australian powers that be with his Twitter tirade about a “toxic environment” within the camp, the fly-half is under suspension, out of contract and preparing for his debut as a professional boxer in February. The bad news is that even in the absence of the cruiserweight notorious for his cheap shots on Richie McCaw, Wales will be susceptible to a knockout blow.
After six defeats in a row, a seventh today would put them out of the top eight in the International Rugby Board world rankings. That would mean the World Cup semi-finalists of 13 months ago going into Monday’s draw for the 2015 World Cup as a third tier nation – facing the prospect of finding themselves in the same pool as, say, New Zealand and England, with only two nations to progress to the knockout stages.
It is a scenario that Warren Gatland could hardly have envisaged when Leigh Halfpenny nailed the penalty that effectively secured the Six Nations Grand Slam against Wales in Cardiff nine months ago. But then, just as the head coach proceeded to suffer a nasty fall while cleaning the windows of his New Zealand beach house, the 2011 World Cup semi-finalists and 2012 Grand Slammers have dropped down the global ladder at a painful rate.
Not that Gatland considers clinging on to the seventh rung to be vital. “I think the rankings issue has a massive impact if you’re in that top four but other than that I don’t think it’s too much of a concern,” he said. “When it comes round to 2015, having had that preparation time together, I don’t think any team will particularly fancy getting Wales in their group.
“We’ll just see what happens on Monday in terms of the groups. We were in a very tough group last time [with South Africa and Samoa]. It’s just luck of the draw – in terms of do you get France in your group, do you get Ireland or Scotland? Whatever happens, you’re going to probably end up with three pretty tough teams in your group.”
Still, it would help if Wales were to avoid the ignominy of a first ever autumn whitewash. They have lost their last seven Tests against Australia but twice got within two points of them on their summer tour this year.
On the debit side, apart from the momentum of their losing run, they have several key players on the injured list – Bradley Davies, Hore’s first minute knockout victim, having joined Adam Jones, Dan Lydiate, Alun Wyn Jones and George North. On the plus side, Jamie Roberts has recovered from the hip problem that sidelined him in the opening quarter of the 33-10 defeat against the All Blacks, and there were signs of a return to form in the second half fightback a week ago, which featured Scott Williams’ score from a stunningly daring 13 man line-out drive.
Much, however, will depend on Rhys Priestland. The Scarlets fly-half was voted the Sexiest Man in Wales last year but has slipped to seventh in the 2012 poll. Last week his awful autumn continued with a couple of butchered punts to touch. Today he has another chance to show the form that made him the stand-out stand-off of the 2011 World Cup.
“A win would be nice,” Gatland said, “but we’d still be disappointed with not winning the first two games of the autumn [against Argentina and Samoa]. We won’t hide away from that fact. It’s been a learning curve for everyone – players and coaches as well, particularly for some of the younger players.
“In the last 14 months, building up to the World Cup and the Six Nations, a lot of things have been positive in their careers and suddenly they’ve had to learn to cope with some team criticism, some personal criticism. That’s part of professional sport.”
Australia have David Pocock back from injury at openside flanker but will be captained by Nathan Sharpe on the occasion of the lock’s 116th and final cap. They also have Berrick Barnes reaching a half-century of caps.
“Wales are going to be desperate,” said Barnes, who suffered a knockout high-tackle blow at the expense of Quade Cooper in a Super 15 contest in July. “There have been times this year when we’ve been tested a hell of a lot and we’ve responded with some of our best performances, so I know what they’ll be going through.
“I look at their playing roster and I can’t see any reason why they can’t turn it around. I just hope it’s not against us.”
SAM WARTURTON v DAVID POCOCK
Try as he did, Warburton could not stop Richie McCaw running the show with a man of the match performance for the All Blacks a week ago and faces another formidable openside flanker, with Pocock returning after injury. The Wales captain and Blue Peter Badge holder will need to be at his best.
RHYS PRIESTLAND v KURTLEY BEALE
Priestland has attracted the bulk of the criticism from the public, the press and former players during Wales’ autumn slump. With James Hook back on club duty with Perpignan, though, the Scarlets outside-half has another opportunity to show his true class – against a player who is still finding his feet as a full-back turned fly-half
BERRICK BARNES v LEIGH HALFPENNY
It remains a mystery why Wales chose to kick for touch rather than give three first half penalties to their long-range hoofing phenomenon against the All Blacks last week. Wales and the Wallabies have been closely matched in their most recent contests. It could well come down to the goal-kicking precision of their full-backs.