Wales open their autumn Test series against Australia this week and the statistical omens are not good. Geraint Powell says the two nations may be moving closer together off the field, but the divide between them on it is likely to be maintained.
On Saturday, the Wallabies will play Wales for the 14th time during the Warren Gatland era, winning every match since an initial defeat in November 2008.
Australian and Welsh rugby have, historically, been worlds apart in a cultural sense.
If Welsh rugby was dependent upon working class, heavy industry communities of South Wales, then Australian rugby was based upon private boarding schools along the Australian eastern seaboard of New South Wales and Queensland.
Above all else, Australian rugby has featured intelligent players, with the Wallabies frequently out-thinking more physical opponents.
For Australian rugby had its own schism in 1907, and the working class masses defected to the bigger professional sport of rugby league in what is now a brutal Australian winter sports market in terms of capturing consumer interest.
For a long time living in the shadows of the ferocious All Blacks versus Springboks rivalry for rugby’s global hegemony, they have only been a major player themselves since the early-1980s. World Cup wins were secured in 1991 and 1999, beaten finalists in 2003, the British and Irish Lions defeated in 2001.
But, in recent years, Australian and Welsh rugby, who both tend to live in the shadow of their near neighbour, have been grappling with many of the same problems.
The ARU centre has been struggling with an absence of sufficient control over devolved provincial non-Test professional teams, with an unsatisfactory dual central contracting model, and a player exodus to the Anglo-French club wage inflation. Sound familiar?
In an extraordinary demonstration of mutual camaraderie, Wales have now introduced a 60-cap rule to play for Wales and Australia has closed its fifth professional team as financially unsustainable.
Michael Cheika’s Wallabies arrive in Cardiff in fine fettle. A comeback of sorts against the All Blacks in Sydney was followed by pushing them all the way in Dunedin in August, and topped off by more recently beating them in Brisbane.
Obviously these results against the All Blacks come with a caveat in terms of injuries/sabbaticals and the All Blacks having come off the back of an intense series against the Lions.
In between there were two draws with the Springboks and two comfortable wins over the Pumas. The Barbarians and Japan were recently beaten, stretching the undefeated sequence to seven matches.
Despite player defections abroad, and Israel Folau on sabbatical, and the refusal to select Quade Cooper, there is still plenty of experience in the Wallabies squad. A total of 11 players have over 50 caps, including the returning from injury Ben McCalman, two years out from the Japanese World Cup.
The Wallabies will be clear favourites on Saturday evening.
We know the Welsh issues every November.
In aerobically stepping up to play SANZAAR teams whose players are coming off the back of Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship, the seven autumn international campaigns of the Gatland era have seen seven opening match defeats.
The other home unions have historically been far better at disrupting southern hemisphere teams. This trend pre-dates the Gatland era although three wins from 35 matches under his tenure is undoubtedly disappointing, given the hemisphere record, the achievements of others, and the changes in the global balance of power.
We also know that Welsh players get better the longer they are in Test camp, making the final match against the Springboks the probable best chance of a southern hemisphere scalp.
Welsh domestic interest this November has been focussed on six jerseys.
- Inside Centre
I have always had a personal preference for a footballing inside centre, a so-called Kiwi “second five-eighth”.
Future Welsh generations will wonder what might have been with a 10/12 axis of James Hook and Gavin Henson between 2008 and 2015, if the issues with both had been addressed under a more centrally managed player model.
The fashion in recent years, and nowhere more so than in Wales with Jamie Roberts, has been to have your big ball carrier at 12 rather than at 13. If he is closer to his forwards in running down the narrower channels, then they will be quicker to the breakdown in numbers to overpower an opposing jackal.
The pendulum is swinging again, with Roberts not selected, and all eyes are on Owen Williams and in the eyes of many, long a natural footballing 12. In addition, the changes to the selection policy have favoured him, having recently signed a long-term pre-existing contract with Gloucester.
When he left the Scarlets for Leicester in 2013, and they retained Rhys Priestland, a few were wondering whether the Scarlets had made the correct choice if they were financially required to offload one of them. Surely he was the coming man?
Can he step up to the pace and intensity of Test rugby, and solve many Welsh problems? We should be about to find out.
Speaking of Priestland, he has rediscovered his mojo outside of the Welsh goldfish bowl and is clearly now enjoying his rugby again at Bath.
When he is good, he is very good. Few will forget his 2011 World Cup quarter-final performance against Ireland in Wellington. But he has been a momentum and confidence player, so it is to be hoped that his demons are now behind him.
It will certainly increase the pressure upon incumbent Dan Biggar, who heads to Northampton next season for what can be for no other reason than remuneration. And lots of it, for he will have noticed that George North’s trajectory lowered after his move there from the Scarlets.
Which player will emerge by December as the first choice No.10?
A rather simple question here, with Steff Evans surely bound to play on one wing?
Unless Hallam Amos is thrown into the equation in the absence of North, which of Leigh Halfpenny and Liam Williams will play on the wing and which will play at full-back?
Liam Williams played at full-back for the Lions, but Saracens are using him as a wing.
With skipper Sam Warburton side-lined for the entire campaign, this was an ideal opportunity to look at the other options besides Justin Tipuric.
But it has not quite played out that way, with fit opensides currently rarer than 80 minutes of contested scrums at Pontypool Park. Ollie Griffiths, Ellis Jenkins and James Davies are all injured.
With Tipuric himself currently struggling with a niggling injury, the options would be Josh Navidi or Sam Cross. It is improbable that Tom Young, who is fit, is best pleased with this turn of events.
With Ross Moriarty unavailable, just returning to club duty after his injury with the Lions, the contest here is intriguing.
This appears to be a straight “shoot out” between Dan Lydiate, a limited ball-carrier but the outright “chopper” at the heart of the 2012 Grand Slam and of the so-called Warrenball era, and the in-form Aaron Shingler (but with the jury still very much out on him at Test level).
And, of course, there will be much attention on Rhys Webb.
Now that he knows that going to Toulon next summer will prematurely end his Test career and reduce his post-retirement rugby-related employment prospects in Wales, will he have second thoughts on calling time early on the ultimate adrenalin rush of Test rugby?
“I grew up wanting to be a British & Irish Lion, then watching on TV as Wales play at a World Cup whilst I play club rugby in France”, said no Welsh child ever.
Webb is struggling with injury, but the vultures are already circling, in case his pre-contract becomes an actual contract, with Rhodri Williams returning from exile next season to resurrect his Test rugby claim.
In the meantime, will we see an improvement in the game management of Gareth Davies to compliment his personal attacking threat?
As for Saturday evening, it is hard to look beyond a Wallabies victory based on the current Welsh developmental situation and the November match statistics of the Gatland era.