If Australia or Wales were better than mediocre, their pivotal Rugby World Cup pool match on Sunday in Lyon would be easier to call.
The two-time champion Wallabies and three-time semifinalist Welsh are pale imitations of their former selves heading into a contest that reeks of desperation.
Wales, fifth in the Six Nations, could clinch a quarterfinal berth.
Australia, six losses in seven tests this year, wants to avoid its earliest-ever exit from a Rugby World Cup.
Wallabies coach Eddie Jones reacted by ditching Carter Gordon, the starting flyhalf in their last five tests, and asked utility Ben Donaldson to marshal the side after playing well at fullback. Donaldson’s only previous test start at flyhalf was against Wales last November. It wasn’t pretty while he was on.
He will combine in the halves for the first time with Tate McDermott, who was back from a head knock.
Fullback Andrew Kellaway will make his Rugby World Cup debut, and Rob Leota was brought into the back row to give it some oomph after it was outmuscled by Fiji last weekend. Fiji won 18 penalties off Australia, 10 at the breakdown. Fiji beat Australia 22-15 for the first time in 69 years to no surprise.
Even though he dropped Gordon to the reserves, Jones insisted his “go young” approach risked short-term pain for long-term gain when Australia hosts the 2027 Rugby World Cup. In the meantime, Jones repeated they can win this Rugby World Cup “if we beat Wales.”
But the Wallabies’ inexperience is generating too much indiscipline and miscommunication. Australia has conceded 33 points from penalty goals across its past three tests, and comes up against, in Dan Biggar, Wales’ record point-scorer in Rugby World Cup history with a deadly kicking percentage of 87% across four tournaments.
The Wallabies, already badly handicapped without their two best forwards in captain Will Skelton and prop Taniela Tupou — both injured — are still learning how to play together.
Prop James Slipper’s 132 caps are more than the rest of the forward pack combined. Marika Koroibete is the only back with more than 50 caps. Australia has a total of only 455 caps. The Wales backline, alone, has more.
“We are not trying to be a mediocre team,” Jones said. “We want to be a really good team, and to be a really good team there’s some pain and there’s some failure involved.”
Wales on paper looks ready to dish out some pain. It has the same, largely rested 15 that started against Fiji two weeks ago, a 32-26 win owing to a large degree of luck and an overly friendly referee. But Wales also showed the benefit of Warren Gatland’s training camp by making an incredible 237 tackles against Fiji. The Welsh put their bodies on the line for each other and prevailed.
“We don’t get enough credit for that,” Gatland said.
Wales has two bonus-point pool wins almost despite itself, as discipline is also its ongoing issue. It conceded 17 penalties to Fiji and 11 to Portugal. If Wales give penalty kicks to Donaldson, he’s averaging a dangerous 80%.
Captain Jac Morgan inspires more by deeds than vocally, but he has abundant experience in the right places; Tomas Francis at tighthead, Adam Beard in the second row, the ageless Taulupe Faletau at No. 8 and a backline of wise heads including Gareth Davies, Biggar, George North, Josh Adams and Liam Williams.
North, set to play his 119th test, says the old heads in the team have been telling the lesser old heads to stay the course.
“The message has been clear from us,” North said, “that we take every game, every week, as it comes. Focus fully on what’s coming. You’re here for a reason and the way you’ve been playing has got you that jersey, so don’t change anything.”
Australia: Andrew Kellaway, Mark Nawaqanitawase, Jordan Petaia, Samu Kerevi, Marika Koroibete, Ben Donaldson, Tate McDermott; Rob Valetini, Tom Hooper, Rob Leota, Richard Arnold, Nick Frost, James Slipper, David Porecki (captain), Angus Bell. Reserves: Matt Faessler, Blake Schoupp, Pone Fa’amausili, Matt Philip, Fraser McReight, Nic White, Carter Gordon, Suliasi Vunivalu.
Wales: Liam Williams, Louis Rees-Zammit, George North, Nick Tompkins, Josh Adams, Dan Biggar, Gareth Davies; Taulupe Faletau, Jac Morgan (captain), Aaron Wainwright, Adam Beard, Will Rowlands, Tomas Francis, Ryan Elias, Gareth Thomas. Reserves: Elliot Dee, Corey Domachowski, Henry Thomas, Dafydd Jenkins, Taine Basham, Tomos Williams, Gareth Anscombe, Rio Dyer.
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