There will be nothing but pride at stake when the Wallabies play Wales in Cardiff on Sunday morning, yet it is still important to finish their frustrating tour of Britain with a confidence-boosting victory.
After losing to Scotland 15-13 at Murrayfield and then England 32-15 at Twickenham, Australia cannot achieve success in the win-loss column, but they can reclaim their self-esteem with a win against the Six Nations champions. And that would mean a lot to their psyche heading into next season and the penultimate year before the 2023 World Cup in France.
Returning to Australia from Britain winless would be a major setback for a Wallabies team who only a few months ago looked as if they were on the road to recovery after five long, lean years.
Dave Rennie’s side lifted themselves from seventh in the world – their lowest-ever ranking – to third following their four straight wins against world champions South Africa and Argentina in the Rugby Championship. They embarked on their end-of-year tour of Japan and Britain with tremendous optimism, but are now heading in the wrong direction once again, slipping to fifth in the world.
The Wallabies must arrest the slide against Wales before they slip further down the rankings, undermining their self-belief and confidence so close to the World Cup.
Once, not so long ago, the Wallabies had the wood on Wales, winning 13 consecutive Tests against the Welsh from 2009 to 2017. But that dominance, and the psychological advantage that went with it, is gone. Wales beat the Wallabies the last two times they met, a 9-6 win in Cardiff in 2018 and a 29-25 victory in Tokyo during the 2019 World Cup, and are now seeking their third straight win against Australia for the first time since 1975.
The Welsh are the reigning champions of Europe, but that does not mean Australia are incapable of beating them. Wales also have injuries and are blooding new faces. There was a bit of experimentation Wales’ recent 23-18 loss to South Africa and 38-23 win against Fiji.
Notwithstanding the 17-point margin, the Wallabies actually defended fairly well against an England side which dominated possession, but was held to only two tries – one of which was scored on full-time.
Most games between Australia and Wales are close affairs, but it is difficult to see the former winning unless they learn to use the ball better than they did against Scotland and England.
There was a time when the Wallabies were regarded as one of the most skilful teams in world rugby. Think of names such as Mark Ella, David Campese, Tim Horan and Steve Larkham.
Without mercurial playmaker Quade Cooper, who chose to return to his Japanese club rather than tour Britain, the backline is sorely lacking in fundamental catch-pass skills. In fact, the Wallabies look like a completely different team without Cooper and powerful inside-centre Samu Kerevi, who also returned to his Japanese club.
Rennie is always exhorting the players to “treasure” the ball, but they continually throw it away – quite literally – with poor passes. The backs struggle to shift the ball from left to right with their weak hands and too often try to force a panicky one-handed offload, which invariably ends up on the ground or in the opposition’s hands.
It is as if they are over-anxious trying to keep the attack moving, but dropped balls are having the opposite effect by halting play. Instead of trying to throw a miracle pass, they should be prepared to take the tackle and recycle the ball to continue to attack.
The Wallabies have only scored one try in their last two Tests, but if they hold onto the ball and run hard and straight, there is a chance they will eventually wear down the Welsh defence and score enough tries to win the game.
But continue to handle the ball as poorly as they did against Scotland and England and it will make it very hard for them to capitalise on opportunities.
Of course, the Wallabies must try to achieve victory without their inspirational captain and openside flanker Michael Hooper, who was ruled out with a foot injury. The absence of the workaholic Hooper is certain to have a big impact. Just look at the effect it had on the NSW Waratahs who struggled to play without him last Super Rugby season while he was on sabbatical in Japan.
But it is an opportunity for the Wallabies to learn how to cope without Hooper. They must base their game on the strengths of the players on the field, not those off it.
Veteran prop James Slipper will lead in Hooper’s absence, but the other senior players in the team, especially the playmakers, must assume greater leadership responsibility to help to take pressure off him.
Just a couple of months ago everything seemed to be going swimmingly for the Wallabies, but the Welsh Test is a salvage operation to recover Australia’s sinking pride.