(Photo: Getty Images)
By Peter Jackson
The Wallabies will not have forgotten what happened on their last British appearance, when a fourth English blitz in a row completed a serial hammering.
As a cricket nut with a stock answer to any question viewed as moving off the seam (‘Mate, I’ll let that one go through to the keeper’), Eddie Jones would appreciate the analogy.
Warren Gatland will not, given Australia’s perennial capacity for catching Wales on the stickiest of wickets in Cardiff.
The green-and-gold are back there on Saturday for their annual inspection of the premises where they won the last of their two World Cups nearly 20 years ago and where they have swept all before them since losing there in November 2008. Neither of the last two survivors of that team will be there this time.
One, Jamie Roberts, has been put out to pasture, Wales having belatedly realised that the crash-ball is about as close to cutting-edge technology as the fax machine. The other, Gethin
Jenkins, made a PRO14 come-back on Friday night in splendid defiance of old age.
Whether Gatland redesigns his midfield by giving Owen Williams a first start at inside centre remains to be seen. The bigger picture will cause him greater concern, how to stop a run of defeats long enough to cause Pythagorus some grief over restoring credibility to the law of averages.
Since that match nine years ago, Wales have played Australia 16 times and lost every one, the majority at home. Last summer they would have had good reason for thinking that the Wallabies, for once, would turn up in a punch-drunk condition.
As if Michael Cheika’s wounded team hadn’t been bounced from pillar to post enough by England, they proceeded to lose to Scotland for the first time in Sydney. That barely 30,000 turned up reflected a sport in the throes of a domestic crisis highlighted by the elimination of one Super XV franchise.
The All Blacks, dazed by their inability to put the Lions away, recovered in time for their first match after the drawn series, in Sydney in August. Six first-half tries added up to the ultimate trans-Tasman rout, one which would have left a humane referee, in this case Wayne Barnes, wishing he could have stopped it inside the distance.
The fans gave up in their droves. The crowd for the next home fixture, South Africa in Perth, slumped to an alarming 17,435 and, for the one after that, Argentina in Canberra, it had fallen to 14,229.
If the coldest of shoulders left the lonely Wallabies suffering from frostbite, they didn’t show it. They licked their wounds and created the stirring impression of having taken not just a few leaves out of Lazarus’ manual on resurrection but entire chapters. Seven days after the Sydney schmozzle, Cheika’s men matched the neighbours try for try in the veritable graveyard of Dunedin.
They won everywhere except on the scoreboard, scoring more tries (five) in one afternoon than the Lions managed throughout three cracks at the same opponents. After two draws against the equally resurgent Springboks and a handsome double over Argentina, the Wallabies finished their year at home on such a high that it appeared, from this distance at least, to border on the miraculous.
As a glorious reminder that no two games of rugby are ever alike, Australia turned the trouncing by the All Blacks at the same venue two months earlier into a thrilling win made possible by Reece Hodge’s late try. The moral is not hard to find: no matter how bad they get, never waste nervous energy feeling sorry for the Aussies.
It will suit the Welsh psyche that they are second favourites despite the absence of the one Wallaby who would bound into anyone’s World XV any time, Israel Folau. Legions of fans outside Wales will bemoan the absence of one of the sport’s few true superstars.
Inside Wales, and more pertinently inside the Welsh camp, they will view the magical full-back’s sabbatical as an evening-up of the ledger. There is, however, a bigger question prompted by their rise from the Ashes, no pun intended.
If a country where Union has been pushed into a distant fourth as the poor man’s football behind Aussie Rules, League and soccer, why can’t Wales do the same? Maybe they will. Maybe next Saturday will be a start.
Heaven knows, it is long overdue.