Gareth Anscombe selection gives Wales attacking twist against Australia

Defences have come to know what to expect from Wales but Warren Gatland has introduced an element of doubt into Rugby World Cup Pool A decider

Warren Gatland and Michael Cheika have been cited this week as coaches England should be sounding out, hard-nosed men driven by success who won a championship title in their first year in charge of Wales and Australia respectively having delivered trophies at club level, but their interest in the tournament hosts has evaporated after their combined efforts in eliminating them.

Gatland and Cheika are focused on winning this year’s World Cup. The Wallabies have excited bookmakers after their record victory over England at Twickenham last week, but Wales remain longer shots, even if their odds have shortened slightly, despite scoring their highest number of points at Twickenham when they came from behind to defeat the hosts.

The two sides return to Twickenham on Saturday for a match that decides the group winners. The outcome will determine, on the assumption Scotland defeat Samoa, whether the quarter-finals are a shootout between the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship or whether, as in 2011, the Wallabies face South Africa and Wales have European opponents, Scotland rather than Ireland.

Wales have been relaxed this week, players winding each other up over ghostly goings-on at their hotel in Weybridge, and Gatland is in the position of a contestant on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire who reaches the point where a wrong answer does not cost. A place in the quarter-finals was guaranteed when Australia defeated England and while victory over the Wallabies means Wales would avoid New Zealand in the knockout stage, their captain Sam Warburton pointed out that there was no easy route to the final.

The winner of the group will face Scotland or Japan in the last eight and the runner-up will run into the Springboks who, while topping their group after suffering an opening weekend defeat to Japan, have come to resemble a crashed iPod restored to factory settings. Wales, who beat South Africa in Cardiff last November and have not lost to the Scots in the Gatland era, will fear neither which is why they are using what is effectively a free round to take a different approach.

Gatland has given his backline an attacking twist without compromising its physical threat. At forward, he has added ballast by naming his two best scrummaging props and brought back his best lineout operator, Luke Charteris, while maintaining effectiveness at the breakdown by including two open-side flankers in the back row, Warburton and Justin Tipuric.

Wales have lost their past 10 matches to Australia in a run that goes back to 2008. Most of the defeats have been by narrow margins with an average of less than six points, often down to the ability of the Wallabies to manufacture a try in the last 10 minutes. For all Wales’s success in the Six Nations under Gatland, two grand slams and a title and only four defeats in the four tournaments since the last World Cup, they have tended to struggle against the best of the southern hemisphere when confrontation without craft is usually not enough.

The selection of Gareth Anscombe at full-back hints at a change of direction by Wales, at least for one match. Their attacking strategy has changed little in recent years with getting over the gainline, usually in the form of Jamie Roberts, the key. Gatland likes his outside-half to direct traffic by standing flat and when the ball is not being pumped in the air and, rare for a New Zealander, he does not see the need to have a footballer at inside-centre, a position Kiwis call second-five.

Anscombe, who joined Cardiff Blues from the Chiefs last season and qualifies for Wales through his mother, is an outside-half by preference. He said this week that he would at times on Saturday act as second receiver, suggesting Wales will deploy him from full-back in the way England utilised Alex Goode a couple of years ago when they operated without a second-five. Defences have come to know what to expect from Wales, but there will be an element of doubt at Twickenham.

Most of the Australian side know Anscombe from his time at the Chiefs, who used him mainly at full-back, but the only footage they will have seen of him in a Wales jersey is the 30 minutes he spent on the field after coming on as an outside-half replacement in the warm-up against Ireland in August. He will have a surprise factor and Wales are likely to keep the ball in hand more than they did against England, if only because of the aerial prowess and counterattacking threat of the Australia full-back Israel Folau.

England ultimately failed against Australia, not forgetting their problems up front, because while they caught out the Wallabies a few times with backline moves from line-outs, they struggled to create space in broken play, unlike their opponents who, with a playmaker at inside-centre in Matt Giteau, bedazzled with their runnings lines and intricate passing.

“Australia’s backs are looking sharp and they played some good rugby against England,” the Wales outside-half Dan Biggar said. “It will take a big defensive effort from us, but we go into the game with plenty of confidence and back ourselves to come out on top. A fraction of the pressure is off us and we can chance our arm a bit, although our structure will remain physical. It is an exciting selection and we want to play.”

History and form in this World Cup suggest Australia, just, but it does not often pay to write off a Gatland team.


Paul Rees

The GuardianTramp

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