Warren Gatland has pinpointed David Pocock as the man Wales must stop if they are to beat Australia in Sunday’s World Cup clash in Tokyo.
The Wales coach – who has named an unchanged side to face the Wallabies – knows the damage Pocock can do at the breakdown and admits his own team have suffered badly before.
The Aussie No.7 plans to retire after the tournament, but his value to the men in gold is clear with only the briefest look at the statistics.
The 31-year-old has had more than his share of injuries over the past decade, but when he plays Australia have a 59 per cent win ratio, which plummets to only 48 per cent when he’s not there.
In his absence, the Wallabies have regularly turned to Michael Hooper to do the same role at openside and have more recently played both in their back row. But Gatland, who masterminded victory over Australia last year, believes there is no real comparison in their effectiveness.
“We did a good job last year on Hooper,” said Gatland. “He had about 12 attempts against us trying to steal the ball and he did not get any.
“Pocock was a different story. He had about 10 attempts and got about five. He is a big threat for us and it is something we must focus on.
“He is pretty good at picking his timings when he does go for the ball in a turnover. They are two definite real threats at the breakdown but we are pretty happy with our loose forwards and with their ball-carrying physicality as well.
“They are all capable of playing six seven and eight which is pretty similar to Australia.”
Justin Tipuric will be the man Gatland hopes can directly neutralise the threat of Pocock, but one of the Wales back rowers kept faith in by Gatland is Aaron Wainwright, the 22-year-old who has kept the more experienced Ross Moriarty on the replacements’ bench.
Wainwright has never played against Australia, or Pocock, before but Gatland has been impressed by the Dragons forward’s ability to adapt to each new challenge presented to him.
“It is big test for us and him. He just turned 22 the other day and he has a massive amount of potential.
“We just felt he deserved that opportunity after that first game and hopefully we are looking for him to be a bit more vocal. We want him to get his hands on the ball because I don’t think people realise how explosive and powerful he is.
“He is going to be some player in a few years so we just have to give him that confidence and self-belief that he is able to perform at this level, considering only 12 months ago he had his first international.
“He has made a huge amount of progress but we still see a lot of growth in him as well. He is exceptional taking on knowledge and information, knowing his line-out roles. He is also really good defensively so he deserves that opportunity to keep playing.”
Alun Wyn Jones will become Wales’ most-capped player when he leads his country out on Sunday.
The Wales skipper will win his 130th cap, breaking the previous record held by prop Gethin Jenkins.
Gatland’s choice to retain the side that started in the 43-14 victory over Georgia four days ago is not quite reflected on the bench.
There is one switch among the replacements, with Ospreys centre Owen Watkin taking over from Leigh Halfpenny.
Centre Hadleigh Parkes and hooker Ken Owens, who both suffered knocks during the Georgia game, are among a starting XV featuring nine survivors from Wales’ narrow win against Australia last November.
There are also further opportunities for prop Wyn Jones and Wainwright after they made their World Cup debuts in the Georgia game.
And flanker Aaron Shingler will again provide second-row bench cover for starting locks Jake Ball and Alun Wyn Jones.
Victory for Wales would put them in pole position to win their group and set up a potential quarter-final against France or Argentina.
But if the Wallabies claim a 14th win from the last 15 starts against Wales, then Gatland’s men could find themselves hurtling towards a last-eight appointment with England.
Wales have not claimed a World Cup success against Australia since 1987, when they won a third place play-off encounter 22-21 in Rotorua, New Zealand.
Australia, meanwhile, opened their current World Cup campaign by beating Fiji, but wing Reece Hodge was cited for a dangerous tackle and banned following that game and he will miss the Wales clash.
Wales: L Williams; North, Jonathan Davies, Parkes, Adams; Biggar, G Davies; Wyn Jones, Owens, Francis, Ball, Alun Wyn Jones (C), Wainwright, Tipuric, Navidi.
Replacements: Smith, Dee, Lewis, Shingler, Moriarty, T Williams, Patchell, Watkin.
Australia: Haylett-Petty; Ashley-Cooper, O’Connor, Kerevi, Koroibete; Foley, Genia; Sio, Latu, Alaalatoa, Rodda, Arnold, Pocock, Naisarani, Hooper (C)
Replacements: Uelese, Slipper, Kepu, Coleman, Salakaia-Loto, White, To’omua, Beale.