Australia’s mental edge proves Wales’s biggest barrier to ending losing streak | Paul Rees

Wales have lost their past 11 matches against Australia and while the Wallabies are not as strong as a year ago, the hosts must keep their heads in closing stages

Australia’s matches against Wales have come to be a victory of mind over matter. No matter how much time the Wallabies spend on the back foot, trying to disengage from a scrum or checking their body parts after a rampaging run by Jamie Roberts or George North, they keep their heads so that when a game nears its end, with lungs bursting and legs aching, they have the wherewithal to fashion the decisive play.

The Wallabies have snatched victory at the last over Wales too often for it to be a coincidence. Since they last lost to the men in red eight years ago, they have won all 11 matches against them and all but the first have been by a single-figure margin.

The former Australia coach Robbie Deans, talking this week about the supremacy of New Zealand, said the All Blacks had mastered the mental side of the game and that “when things go against them, they respond the best”.

After Wales had lost to Australia in Cardiff two years ago having led 10 minutes from the end, their former flanker Martyn Williams praised the high tempo of the home side but lamented they did not appreciate when they needed to slow down and “read the game situation”.

It perhaps explains that while Wales have been talking about the need to break into the top four of the world rankings before May’s World Cup draw to maximize their chances of escaping another difficult pool, the Wallabies said it was not something they had thought about, concerned only about ending a poor year on a higher note.

Australia are not where they were two years ago when they looked a shambles and Michael Cheika became their third coach in little more than a year, but neither are they the side of 2015 when they won the Rugby Championship and reached the World Cup final. They have lost a core of experience since then, especially behind the scrum where Tevita Kuridrani and Reece Hodge team up in the midfield for the first time and face Test rugby’s most experienced centre partnership, Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies.

Wales are without three Lions forwards in Sam Warburton, Alun Wyn Jones and Taulupe Faletau, but the only players in their starting lineup who missed the World Cup are Davies, Leigh Halfpenny and Rhys Webb, who were all injured. They may have an interim coach in Rob Howley but their squad are settled and Australia know what to expect.

Cheika has kept Israel Folau at full-back rather than moving him to outside-centre to get the ball to him earlier, preferring to keep one of the game’s most proficient players under the high kicks as the last line of defence against a side who place considerable emphasis on the aerial battle. In the back row he is playing two openside flankers, as he did in the World Cup and earlier this year.

David Pocock was then deployed at No8 but against Wales he will be at blindside flanker with Michael Hooper on the openside. It reduces Australia’s lineout options, not that Wales kick the ball out of play as a tactic, but keeps the 19st Lopeti Timani at No8 as a physical counterweight. Part of Cheika’s reasoning is that it makes his side more effective at the breakdown, an area of weakness in their 3-0 series defeats by England and New Zealand.

“We are a new team that is getting to know each other and an area where you struggle at that stage of your development is in transition when the ball is turned over,” Cheika said. “We have been working hard defensively and we have to improve there. When a turnover happens, and it will, we have to be clinical in the way we shut it down.”

Wales have been working on the handling skills of their tight-five forwards, mindful that one reason for New Zealand’s pre-eminence is the athleticism, dexterity and awareness of their front and second rows. As they look to evolve into a side who tax opponents mentally and physically, they have become more porous defensively, conceding 21 tries in their past four Tests. Australia showed in defeat to New Zealand last month that their attack can stress the best defences.

“We see Wales as a huge opponent and the scores in recent games against them tell that story,” Cheika said, “close and entertaining. I have a feeling it is going to be close again.” Another case of mind and the old grey matter.


Paul Rees

The GuardianTramp

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