Wales and Australia’s cast of understudies can still provide drama | Michael Aylwin

With Ellis Jenkins retaining the Wales captaincy and Australia stung by defeats, there is plenty to play for in Cardiff

After what will no doubt prove to be a brutal and toxic rerun of the most recent World Cup final on Saturday, Amazon Prime customers might be forgiven for switching over to the Wheel of Time for their Saturday evening entertainment. But, nestled between England v South Africa and the late-night headliner of France v New Zealand, Amazon has one other “exclusive original” drama – it’s Wales v Australia.

When the schedules were being drawn up, this might have set the pulses racing like Rosamund Pike with a bow and arrow. Wales are Six Nations champions, and Australia had risen to No 3 in the world on the back of five wins in a row, two of them against the world champions themselves.

Neither side has enjoyed an uplifting autumn. Wales, for all their recent success, are wallowing in ninth place in the rankings, while Australia have lost to Scotland and England so far on their tour of Europe.

Michael Hooper, Australia’s captain and centurion, is out with a foot injury, making this only the eighth Test he has missed since his debut nine years and 118 caps ago. Punters would be forgiven for seeing his absence as a gaping hole where the Wallabies’ heart and soul should be.

Meanwhile, Wales have suffered a scourge in personnel and, more obviously, experience. They finished the Six Nations with a starting team of more than 1,000 caps; the side that will start this weekend has fewer than 500. This need not be a negative, such is the natural renewal required of any team, but casual punters might well consider this an Amazon drama of understudies.

Alun Wyn Jones exited stage left early in the opening game of the autumn – a horrible defeat to the All Blacks – clutching his troublesome shoulder and his 161 caps, only 50 shy of the total of Wales’s entire pack against Australia. Now Wayne Pivac has chosen to dispense with another 93 caps by leaving Jonathan Davies, his captain in the defeat to South Africa the week after the one to New Zealand, out of the squad altogether for this. Other absentees this autumn include Ken Owens, Justin Tipuric, Leigh Halfpenny and George North, laden with caps, all of them.

But from out of the wreckage steps Ellis Jenkins. One unqualified boon of Wales’s autumn is his return from a nightmarish injury that cost him three years of international rugby. If it is possible to find leaders to replace those of the calibre of Jones and his predecessor, Sam Warburton, Wales have long thought that in Jenkins they might find that man, which made that long absence all the more galling.

He has not disappointed since his return in the defeat to South Africa a fortnight ago, which was Wales’s most gratifying and promising performance of the autumn. Last week, the captaincy which he had held before that knee injury in 2018 was returned to him for the win over Fiji. Now his retention of it for the Wallabies game feels more like a permanent appointment.

“I don’t feel any extra pressure,” he says of his leadership of a team missing so much experience. “My job is to play well first and foremost. Alun and Foxy [Davies] are big voices for us, but there’s lots of those throughout the team. We’ve got to get on with it. Rather than view it as a big loss, we’ve got to see it as an opportunity for someone else.”

Wales are boosted by the return of Wyn Jones and Tomas Francis on either side of the front row, while Jack Adams resumes on the wing and Willis Halaholo assumes the place normally reserved for Davies at centre. In the back row, Aaron Wainwright returns alongside Jenkins and another flanker who has had a fine autumn, Taine Basham.

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Wales are placing their faith – and possibly future direction – in a light but flexible back five of the pack. Their suitability will be tested this weekend by a bruising Wallaby outfit, in which Pete Samu replaces Hooper, further spiced up by the inclusion of the “Tongan Thor”, Taniela Tupou, as ferocious a prop with ball in hand as rugby currently knows.

He could certainly pass as a character in an Amazon Prime fantasy epic. Maybe punters should not turn over quite so soon.


Michael Aylwin

The GuardianTramp

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