Australia under extreme pressure as Wales loom in crucial World Cup contest
Australia face an unthinkable group-stage exit from the Rugby World Cup as they prepare to face Wales in Sunday’s must-win Pool C clash in Lyon.
Two-time World Cup winners the Wallabies have never before faulted at the first hurdle. However, after a crushing 22-15 defeat to Fiji last time out, Eddie Jones’s side are staring into the abyss.
The Australians will have to navigate the Welsh challenge without the services of captain Will Skelton, who remains sidelined by a calf injury.
Vice-captain Tate McDermott returns to the starting XV after recovering from a concussion – but in another selection oddity from Jones, he won’t take over the captain’s armband from hooker Dave Porecki.
Earlier in the week, scrum coach Neil Hatley insisted the captaincy wasn’t a “massive thing” for the Wallabies, instead backing a larger leadership group. But critics of Jones – who are not in short supply – will suggest the lack of clarity in terms of leadership only points further to a rudderless Australian ship.
Jones caused something of a furore when he left experienced pivots Quade Cooper, James O’Connor and Bernard Foley at home and instead selected 22-year-old Carter Gordon as his only recognised flyhalf for the tournament.
We’ve prepared well, are focused on what we need to do, and we’ll be ready to fight on Sunday night.
The wisdom of that decision will be questioned further with Gordon dropped for the showdown against Wales, with fullback Ben Donaldson moving into the No 10 jersey.
Andrew Kellaway takes over from Donaldson at 15 in the only other change to the backline. Among the forwards, Fraser McReight misses out, with Tom Hooper moving to openside to accommodate Rob Leota.
“Every team has matches like this during a Rugby World Cup and for this young team it is this week,” Jones said ahead of the clash.
“We’ve prepared well, are focused on what we need to do, and we’ll be ready to fight on Sunday night.”
Neither Australia nor Wales head to Lyon with much form to their name. Australia’s opening win over Georgia was their first since beating Wales at Principality Stadium last November.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Rugby World Cup 2023
Wales have won four of their past five games, but have largely flattered to deceive. Their victory over Fiji was a rare bright spot.
A much-changed Wales side stuttered their way to a 28-8 victory over Portugal last time out and only secured the precious four-try bonus point in the 83rd minute.
Warren Gatland has returned to the tried-and-tested for Sunday’s game, with the same starting XV who beat Fiji named to face Australia. That means that Ryan Elias comes back in at hooker at the expense of co-captain Dewi Lake who doesn’t feature in the match-day squad.
Nine players who turned out against Australia in the 2019 World Cup are named in the squad, including five members of the starting backline.
“We’re happy with our position going into this game. We have two wins and 10 points. There’s confidence among this group and we’ve had a good edge to training this week,” said Gatland.
“Everyone wants to be involved and there were some disappointed players this week. Which is exactly what we want with competition strong across the squad. Every game in the World Cup is tough, the stakes are high, and this will be no different.”
Defeat to Wales will all but send Australia packing. Only a calamitous breakdown from Fiji against both Portugal and Georgia would then open the door for the Australians.
For Wales, the equation is not quite so bleak. Victory would assure them of top spot in the group, while defeat with a bonus point (or two) will leave the door open as they hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over Fiji. DM
Australia and Wales line-ups
15 Andrew Kellaway, 14 Mark Nawaqanitawase, 13 Jordan Petaia, 12 Samu Kerevi, 11 Marika Koroibete, 10 Ben Donaldson, 9 Tate McDermott, 8 Rob Valetini, 7 Tom Hooper, 6 Rob Leota, 5 Richie Arnold, 4 Nick Frost, 3 James Slipper, 2 David Porecki (c), 1 Angus Bell
16 Matt Faessler, 17 Blake Schoupp, 18 Pone Fa’amausili, 19 Matt Philip, 20 Fraser McReight, 21 Nic White, 22 Carter Gordon, 23 Suliasi Vunivalu
15 Liam Williams, 14 Louis Rees Zammit, 13 George North, 12 Nick Tompkins, 11 Josh Adams, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Gareth Davies, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Jac Morgan (C), 6 Aaron Wainwright, 5 Adam Beard, 4 Will Rowlands, 3 Tomas Francis, 2 Ryan Elias, 1 Gareth Thomas
16 Elliot Dee, 17 Corey Domachowski, 18 Henry Thomas, 19 Dafydd Jenkins, 20 Taine Basham, 21 Tomos Williams, 22 Gareth Anscombe, 23 Rio Dyer