Larkham blow fuels Welsh hunger

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The Independent Online

With one swing of the boot yesterday, Stephen Larkham presented even more hope to Wales. The Australian outside-half, who it is an understatement to label "influential", was immediately whisked off to hospital for a scan after injuring his knee while practising his kicking. The 33-year-old's absence this afternoon would be a massive blow to Australia and an equally sizeable boost to Wales. It would only add to the sense of an impending upset sweeping through the capital.

At the start of the week the Australians claimed that Wales would just be enjoying an "advantage" by playing in Cardiff. By Friday their captain, Stirling Mortlock, had upped the alert to a "quite significant advantage". In truth, the hype surrounding this fixture has been building for a while now and that is not just down to it all but deciding who will be topping Group B.

Take out June's 31-0 Wallaby walkover over a Welsh side who were at best second-string and in reality even less auspicious and the recent encounters between the two have been evenly matched. True, Wales have only beaten Australia once since pipping them to third place in the 1987 World Cup, but the immediate form makes decidedly more favourable reading.

Wales won at the Millennium in 2005, drew there in 2006 and in the first summer tour match in Sydney were only denied by the last touch of the game, which happened to be Stephen Hoiles' hand pressing ball against try-line. No wonder Gareth Jenkins can say "we respect them, but we do not fear them" without having to put on one of those stone faces coaches specialise in when stating blatant untruths.

In fact, it has been the Australian camp sounding all the bells and although there must be some of their traditional mind-play at the basis of some of their soundings, their own respect for the "home" side cannot be doubted, especially in the light of the Larkham scare. "We are fully aware of the challenge of facing Wales in Cardiff ," said Mortlock, conveniently forgetting that his nation actually won their second World Cup final there in 1999. "We've found it extremely difficult to play Wales here recently, but that I think has reinforced the need to prepare well and we've done that."

In contrast, Wales' build-up was fraught, though in the last few days an air of confidence has been palpable in their ranks. Strange as it may seem to say it, but the best thing that could have probably happened to Wales was escaping the goldfish bowl, if only for 10 days, and the comeback against Canada certainly suggests that the Nantes getaway did wonders to restore their self-belief.

Jonah Lomu, of all people, was quoted in the Principality last week as believing "something clicked" as Wales scored 35 unanswered points in 15 scintillating minutes and Mortlock was willing to agree with the big man. "They were pretty rusty in the first half," said the centre. "But you saw their class come through, especially when their old hands came on deck."

Indeed, Stephen Jones, Gareth Thomas and Colin Charvis all made such an impression that they help to make this anything but the foregone large sections of their bristling fan base would have forecasted at tournament's start. Looking down the starting XV their quality is only matched by their experience and John Connolly, the Australian coach, is certainly expecting a competitive 80 minutes. "Wales have performed well here over the years against the top sides," he said. "Their scrum will be solid, their lineout will be solid."

Whether either can be solid enough to neutralise a back row that has carnage written all over could be the deciding factor. As Gethin Jenkins, the Cardiff loosehead, pointed out, "the Australian scrum is not a weak point any more" and even if it is still fallible "their line-out is as good as any in the world". Add to that, a backline that can boast even more attacking prowess than Wales's far from slouchy glamour boys and the mix remains imposing. Lark- ham's withdrawal would obviously hit Australia, but with those such as Matt Giteau capable of stepping into any hole the loss still might not prove calamitous.

Whatever Wales or for that matter Australia themselves, may claim, the visitors are still overwhelming favourites. Come 4pm, theirs is the advantage that may indeed be "significant".

Wales: G Thomas (Cardiff Blues, capt); M Jones (Llanelli Scarlets), T Shanklin (Cardiff Blues), S Parker, S Williams (both Ospreys); S Jones, D Peel (both Llanelli Scarlets); G Jenkins (Cardiff Blues), M Rees (Llanelli Scarlets), A Jones (Ospreys), I Gough (Ospreys), AW Jones (Ospreys), C Charvis (Newport Gwent Dragons), M Williams (Cardiff Blues), J Thomas (Ospreys). Replacements: T Rhys Thomas (Cardiff Blues), D Jones (Ospreys), M Owen (Newport Gwent Dragons), A Popham (Llanelli Scarlets), M Phillips (Ospreys), J Hook (Ospreys), K Morgan (Newport Gwent Dragons).

Australia: C Latham (Queensland Reds); D Mitchell (Western Force) S Mortlock (ACT Brumbies, capt) M Giteau (Western Force) L Tuqiri (NSW Waratahs); S Larkham, G Gregan (both ACT Brumbies); M Dunning (NSW Waratahs) S Moore (Queensland Reds), G Shepherdson (ACT Brumbies), N Sharpe (Western Force), D Vickerman, R Elsom (both NSW Waratahs), G Smith (ACT Brumbies) W Palu (NSW Waratahs). Replacements: A Freier, A Baxter (both NSW Waratahs), M Chisholm, S Hoiles (both ACT Brumbies), P Waugh (NSW Waratahs), S Staniforth (Western Force), J Huxley, A Ashley-Cooper (both ACT Brumbies).

Referee: S Walsh (NZ).