The Autumn Series is soon upon us. Four games against Australia, Georgia, New Zealand and South Africa respectively for Wales to contend with and to attempt to gain a huge amount of confidence from moving into the Six Nations next year and then onto the Rugby World Cup. First up is Australia, a side who in the last 12 games the two nations have faced each other, Australia has come out on top each and every time. I look at some of the key challenges on Saturday, what my Welsh side would be to try to overcome this poor run of results and my prediction for the game.
Michael Cheika and his coaching staff will be coming to Wales with a lot of confidence after a great win and performance against New Zealand and last week’s resounding victory against Japan. The Wallabies are missing Israel Folau a try-scoring machine and a great strike runner for this European tour and he will be missed, but Australia has some outstanding backs and a forward pack who have certainly earned parody in a number of games against the top sides in the world in recent years, which did not happen previously when the forward pack were underpowered.
Wales have Warren Gatland back at the helm after his sabbatical with the British and Irish Lions. All the talk for last month or so has been around Wales changing their style of play, looking to be more expansive, encouraging players to play what’s in front of them and in the backline to get a second ball player in at inside-centre. All of this sounds very good, but the proof as always is in the pudding. Do Wales have the players to play this style? Is the skill levels high enough to play expansive, with accurate passing and offloads when under pressure in a test match environment? We will see.
Turning now to the key battles on how the teams are likely to match up.
Wales look likely due to the absence of George North to start with Leigh Halfpenny, Liam Williams and Steff Evans. What will be interesting is positional, who plays where? Liam Williams was selected by Gatland at fullback for the British and Irish Lions against New Zealand, as they felt they needed his attacking threat from the 15 position. However, this season Williams has played regularly on the wing for his club side, Saracens, either on the right wing or on the left wing. The fact that Gatland and the coaching staff have talked so much about looking to be more dangerous and expansive in attack would it fly in the face of these words if they now moved Williams back to the wing for Gatland’s own national team and put in the more trustworthy, safe and reliable Leigh Halfpenny as the last line of defence?
Australia with no Folau also has a decision to make at fullback. They could as they did last weekend play the ultra-talented Kurtley Beale there, or they could decide they want Beale back in at inside-centre alongside Bernard Foley, looking to create opportunities and test a potential new face for Wales in the inside-centre slot defensively. Beale will play, but if they decide to move him into the midfield then Karmichael Hunt could well be wearing the 15 shirt. A tough, strong player who does not have the flair of a Folau or a Beale but a fine player in his own right is the Rugby League convert.
The 12 Shirt
As mentioned earlier in this piece, all reports seem to point to Wales going with a creative ball player at inside-centre. The favourite it would appear to start the first game of the series is Owen Williams. The player has played in this position a number of times in recent years for Leicester Tigers and Gloucester Rugby. Williams is a good player but has not had the greatest season to date for Gloucester, where his form has been inconsistent. And if given the start, he could be facing one of the most creative inside-centres in World rugby in Kurtley Beale. The Wasps back when in tandem with Bernard Foley with ball in hand must be a nightmare for opposing defenders with their ability to burst through a gap, or release a teammate with a slight of hand pass, and all this with a novice on the international scene potentially starting at 12 in Owen Williams or Rhys Patchell? Massive test for either player. If Australia decides to leave Beale at 15 then Sami Kerevi could well be given the starting spot at 12. The Queensland Reds player scored two tries last week and is a really strong ball carrier with a decent offload, but his main attribute is his powerful ball carrying. Ironic that Wales are looking to move away from a predominant ball carrier in the 12 shirt when Australia one of the most creative rugby teams in international rugby could very well go with a big strong ball carrier on Saturday, giving Messrs Williams/Patchell a different type of a headache.
As always the forwards will decide who wins the game and as the saying goes the backs decide by how many. The Welsh forwards will believe they have the upper hand in the front five but have an inexperience breakaway trio as in a combination on Saturday what with injuries to Ross Moriarty and Sam Warburton. It appears it will be Aaron Shingler, who fully deserves a return to the international scene at 6, the world-class operator, Taulupe Faletau at 8, and if fit Justin Tipuric at 7. If Tipuric does not make it then likely to see a start for Josh Navidi who would be in direct opposition to the Wallabies captain, Michael Hooper, a fantastic openside flanker who will definitely start. Alongside him is potentially a talented young player in Ned Hannigan at 6 and Sean McMahon a robust strong carrier at 8 completing the trio. It will be a great battle whoever takes the field.
Bearing all of the areas and strengths and weaknesses of the sides, this would be my Welsh team on Saturday if Rhys Webb and Justin Tipuric are fit, who I believe gives the country the best chance of success.
15. Liam Williams
14. Leigh Halfpenny
13. Jonathan Davies
12. Scott Williams
11. Steff Evans
10. Dan Biggar
9. Rhys Webb
1. Rob Evans
2. Ken Owens
3. Samson Lee
4. Jake Ball
5. Alun Wyn Jones
6. Aaron Shingler
7. Justin Tipuric
8. Taulupe Faletau
Hallam Amos, Rhys Patchell, Gareth Davies, Nicky Smith, Elliot Dee, Leon Brown, Seb Davies and Josh Navidi
To finish here is my prediction on the result. I applaud the new ambition it appears Wales want to play with, but I am fearful that in a confident Australian side with so many gifted players will just have too much try scoring threats and take the victory.
Wales 23 Australia 29
So there you have it my thoughts on the first game in the Autumn Series. I will be back with my player ratings on the weekend and then next week my preview of the next game against Georgia.
Please let us have your thoughts on the game and your match predictions, team selection etc. Our message board is there for fans to discuss any sporting matters that you wish, and I will speak to you all soon.
Feature Picture Credit: http://www.autumn-internationals.co.uk