An under-strength Wales face a daunting prospect on Saturday as they come up against an Australia side fresh from beating the All Blacks.
Welsh rugby has been through a tumultuous period this year. A desperately disappointing Six Nations campaign saw the men in red finish a lowly 5th after rare losses to both France and Scotland.
The recent announcement of the new rules regarding player eligibility, based upon which country they ply their trade in, has caused a media frenzy after Rhys Webb fell victim to the variations. He made his thoughts on the matter perfectly clear in an angry blast at the WRU.
These crises were interspersed, however, with a summer that displayed the Welsh game in a good light. The squad fulcrum made a real mark in the Lions’ series draw in New Zealand while the second string dispatched Samoa and Tonga with professionalism, if not quite ease.
So there is cause for optimism in some quarters. However, when faced with the goliath of world rugby that is Australia, Wales are certainly the David-esque underdog.
The Wallabies have had a decent year – they finished second behind a largely untroubled New Zealand setup in the Rugby Championship before defeating the All Blacks and Japan in their last two fixtures.
For all the media hype about the demise of Australian rugby union, they remain a real force to be reckoned with. Just ask Shaun Edwards, who believes they pose a more dangerous attacking threat than New Zealand.
Wales, in contrast, have traditionally struggled against Southern Hemisphere opposition under Warren Gatland – he has mustered just two wins in 30 games against the ‘big three’ (Rob Howley presided over last year’s record victory against South Africa).
Gatland, who referred to his critics as “dumb” last week, has his hand forced by a spate of injury-related withdrawals. Sam Warburton, Gareth Anscombe and George North all miss out.
Jamie Roberts and Luke Charteris have been overlooked by the Welsh hierarchy while centre Scott Williams, initially dropped, has been recalled after an injury to Tyler Morgan.
There are also reports that Wales will be without some members of the current training squad for the Wallabies fixture – namely scrum-half Rhys Webb and flanker Justin Tipruric.
All this injury commotion leaves Gatland in a difficult position, although it may at least mean that a loss probably won’t ramp up the media pressure on him or his staff.
This fixture could grant Wales fans the first chance to see the ‘new’ 10-12 playmaker combination so fervently discussed in rugby circles recently. Owen Williams of the Leicester Tigers is the favourite to fill the inside centre berth on this occasion.
Whether Wales currently have the quality to operate in such a manner is a matter for debate. Any incumbents will probably have to make way for Hadleigh Parkes once he becomes eligible to represent Wales by the time of the South Africa clash.
In short, Wales are almost certainly behind when it comes to player development ahead of the 2019 World Cup in Japan. This autumn offers a chance to correct this, even if due to circumstance.
Captain Alun Wyn Jones and his charges will find a victory against the Wallabies to be a tough ask, but better things could come throughout the series with players recovering from injuries.
With a heavy heart, I believe an Australia win seems the most likely outcome; just don’t expect Wales to make it comfortable for them and look out for some new faces who could be squad fixtures for years to come.
15 – Leigh Halfpenny
14 – Liam Williams
13 – Jonathan Davies
12 – Owen Williams
11 – Steff Evans
10 – Dan Biggar
9 – Gareth Davies
8 – Taulupe Faletau
7 – Josh Navidi
6 – Aaron Shingler
5 – Alun Wyn Jones
4 – Jake Ball
3 – Samson Lee
2 – Ken Owens
1 – Rob Evans