By Rob Cole
Rugby Australia boss Raelene Castle has certainly heaped the pressure on Wallaby coach Michael Cheika by suggesting his side’s ‘pass mark’ for this month will be a clean-sweep of their three games in Europe.
Having been beaten for the ninth time in their past 12 games by the mighty All Blacks in Yokohama two weekends ago the Aussies landed in London on Saturday night shortly after Wales had polished off Scotland at the Principality Stadium.
For once, both teams will have a recent game under their belts, rather than Wales going in cold against one of their biggest rivals in their opening game of the Under Armour Series.
With some of the rustiness knocked out of them in their 21-10 victory over the Scots, Alun Wyn Jones’s side can now look to add the James Bevan Trophy to the Doddie Weir Cup they picked up last weekend when the two teams meet on Saturday night.
Four years ago Cheika arrived in the Welsh capital for his first fully fledged international in charge of the Wallabies following the resignation of Ewen McKenzie. He started with a 33–28 victory over Wales, making in 10 wins in a row, and has added three more victories since then.
The most significant one was at the 2015 Rugby World Cup at Twickenham. After that he took his side all the way to the final against the All Blacks.
He returns to the Principality Stadium, where he won the Heineken Cup with Leinster Rugby back in 2012, looking to lay down a marker ahead of an even more vital clash against Warren Gatland’s side at next year’s Rugby World Cup in Japan.
Both coaches will be aware of the psychological advantages of winning this weekend, especially after a long period of Aussie dominance stretching back 13 games to 2009.
Wales made it six wins in a row last weekend and remain third in the World Rugby rankings. Gatland will have Dan Biggar, Liam Williams, Tom Francis and Josh Adams available to him this weekend, while hopes are high that injuries won’t prevent Ellis Jenkins, Rhys Patchell and Samson Lee from making themselves available for selection.
It means there will be even greater strength in depth from which Gatland and his co-selectors will be able to pick a team to build on their first opening day victory in 16 years in the autumn.
“I think we might have struggled if we had come up against Australia last weekend. It’s nice to get a hit out, rather than being thrown in straight away against a southern hemisphere team coming off the Rugby Championship,” admitted Gatland.
“It was a first game for four months for us, there were lots of positives and lots to build on. This weekend isn’t about getting the monkey off the back against Australia and the more important game will be at next year’s World Cup.
“In the past, there have been games where we’ve been leading going into the final minutes. We’ve been unlucky at times, but it would be nice to get a result.
“It will be an interesting game from a confidence point of view. They’ve got their own pressures back home and they need results, too.”
While Gatland needs to decide whether or not to keep Gareth Anscombe in the No 10 jersey, or to reinstate Biggar now he is available, while the biggest call that his opposite number Cheika will have to make is who to play in the midfield. He added 116-cap veteran Adam Ashley-Cooper to his touring party last week and, with 13 wins over Wales during his career, he could well be given the task of trying to shackle Jonathan Davies.
The only other option is to give Samu Kerevi a first start since June following his comeback from injury. He had a few minutes in Yokohama and could still line-up alongside another fabled Dragon-slayer, Kurtley Beale.
Remember him? He was the man who broke Welsh hearts with his last minute try in 2012 that earned his side what seemed an unlikely 14-12 triumph. Keeping quiet both him and the magnificent Israel Folau will be the toughest task for the Welsh defence.
Having put in a strong defensive shift against the Scots, which included 179 tackles, Wales are likely to have to be on their guard once again this weekend against a side that signed off their 2018 Rugby Championship campaign with six tries against the Pumas in Salta.
The intensity levels will rise, the expectation on both sides will be huge and the Principality Stadium is set for a real treat in round two of the 2018 Under Armour Series.