By Shane Williams
I’m going to be fascinated by the back-three battle when Wales face Australia in Cardiff as Warren Gatland has the men to go toe-to-toe with the Wallabies in the attacking stakes and get the better of them.
That might seem like quite a claim – especially given the 32-8 defeat last autumn and our record against them – but it’s one I believe. It promises to be one hell of an encounter.
I don’t expect Michael Cheika to change too much about the way Australia play, even though Israel Folau has been rested and won’t be running out at Principality Stadium.
Folau is one hell of a talent and Australia use him at his best. He’s big, powerful, direct, great in the air and his background in Rugby League and Australian Rules football means he’s pretty much the complete player. The options to replace him are interesting.
Reece Hodge, Karmichael Hunt and Kurtley Beale are the men in the frame and while none of them quite bring Folau’s all-round threat, Wales will have to be wary of them. If I was a betting man, I’d say Hunt is the most likely to start. But, while Wales must have respect for Australia and, of course, they will, if I was Warren I’d be telling my team one thing: let’s focus on us and how we play, not what the opposition are doing.
If Wales do that, give their in-form players a chance in their best position and make sure their basics are right, then I think we can beat Australia. It’s about time we did so.
To do that we have to be brave, front up physically and our forwards need to ensure we have at least parity when it comes to a set-piece platform. If that happens, we need to gamble behind the scrum.
I’m excited to see whoever steps into the twin playmaking roles at 10 and 12, but I think the game will be decided by the wide men. This is why Wales must go for broke in that area.
I’d have Liam Williams at full-back, Leigh Halfpenny on the right wing and Steffan Evans on the left. What an exciting combination that is. We know what a dangerous team Australia are and the reality is that at some stage, they’re going to score tries. To win, Wales will have to outscore them or at the very least match them. That’s why I think we have to mix things up and when it’s on to go wide, really take the attack to them. For me, Liam is absolutely key to that in the 15 jersey.
Even though he’s played his rugby for Saracens on the wing and Leigh has started at full-back for the Scarlets, I’d still switch the pair. We saw with the Lions how devastating a counter-attacker Liam is from back field and I actually think Leigh can be more dangerous on the wing.
That’s where he came into the Wales side when I was still playing and I think he has more of a free role there. He can score more tries from that position and on the other wing, there’s Steffan Evans who we all know has been on fire this season.
One worry I have with Steffan is that Australia might try and target him with the high ball. He’s not the biggest and is still hugely inexperienced at international level, but for too long in Wales we’ve looked at what people can’t do and not what they can. The way the game of rugby is going now is that teams are going out to score tries and in my mind, there is no doubt Wales have the players to do that.
At times, I don’t think we realise how lucky we are with some of the talent we have available to us.
Liam and Leigh are two world-class operators and Steff is one of the most talented young players coming through in European rugby.
Then we’ve got guys like Alex Cuthbert and Hallam Amos in reserve. Let’s not forget their ability. I know Alex has taken his fair share of criticism in the past, but he was excellent against Tonga in the summer before going off injured and Hallam has impressed for the Dragons this season.
These are two guys who are likely to be on the bench, so what does that say about the quality we have on the field? For too long we haven’t been positive enough about what we possess in Welsh rugby and this feels to me like a start of a fresh dawn ahead of the 2019 World Cup.
So, let’s be positive about taking on Australia. Yes they’re a world-class team with amazing players – but they can be beaten and in Liam, Leigh and Steffan, Wales have guys who can help them do exactly that. Come on boys!