Wales v Australia, Rugby World Cup Play-Off, October 21
Wales poised for final flourish
October 20, 2011
Wales captain Sam Warburton leaves the field after his red card for a tip tackle on Vincent Clerc © Getty Images
Amid all the fanfare surrounding Sunday night's Rugby World Cup Final you could be forgiven for not remembering that there are actually two games left in the tournament.
Many people would be happy to forget the 'Bronze Final' altogether such is there antipathy towards the battle for the title of '3rd best side in the world'. The fixture reportedly failed to inspire former England No.8 Dean Richards, who apparently was out drinking until 6am on the day of the game in 1995 - with some of the French players he would later tackle. But perhaps more famously, South Africa prop Ollie le Roux described his side's play-off with New Zealand in 1999 "as exciting a prospect as kissing your sister".
World Cup officials may be keen to stress its significance but, in reality, this is no more than a commercial bonus for the tournament organisers and with an anticipated crowd of around 50,000 fans - who will have paid somewhere between NZ$97 to NZ$358 (approximately £50-£180) - it is clearly an incredibly valuable one as the hosts look to cover their significant costs. With qualification for the next World Cup in England in four years' time already having been secured with their passage into the knock out stages and with seeding for that tournament set to be decided on the back of the International Rugby Board's ranking as of the end of next year, there appears even less on offer for the battle-weary teams involved.
Australia and Wales enter Friday night's game less than a week after their respective World Cup dreams died. The Wallabies were put to the sword by a rampant New Zealand side seemingly intent on going all the way, while the end of Wales' quest for the big prize was equally sensational thanks to referee Alain Rolland's decision to red card their captain Sam Warburton with the game against France just 17 minutes old.
The physical scars of those agonising defeats have been soothed by a couple of days of rest and recuperation in and around Auckland, but only time will tell how these sides have dealt with the emotional fatigue. It may seem obvious but it is worth remembering that both teams will have come to New Zealand intent on winning the Cup and having failed in their primary aim and seen four years of work fail to come to fruition, there is reason to fear a drop off in performance.
But both sides have already shown an ability to weather such blows. The Pool stages saw Wales fall to South Africa and Australia suffer at the hands of Ireland but they recovered their composure to qualify for the knock out stages. Wales would then send the Irish packing and the Wallabies would edge out the Boks before the semi-finals proved a bridge too far. As a result, we have a repeat of the first ever play-off game at the inaugural World Cup in 1987, also in New Zealand, that saw Wales claim a narrow 22-21 triumph.
By this stage of the campaign, the heavy toll of the previous games ensures that training is relatively light and preparation is largely focused on the mental element of the game. That is particularly the case for this game, which is likely to be won by the side best able to lift themselves out of despair.
Australia have arguably the furthest to climb having been on the receiving end of a brutal all round performance by the All Blacks. Out-muscled and outplayed, they had little answer to the onslaught and while the team clearly came up short, it was fly-half Quade Cooper's high-profile shocker that is perhaps the biggest worry. The Wallabies' playmaker has struggled to find his best game just when he needed it most and if coach Robbie Deans had an able deputy in his armoury, his Kiwi-born first-choice No.10 may have found himself on the bench.
But he retains his place, handed another chance to find the form that helped the Reds to Super Rugby glory and his country to the Tri-Nations crown earlier this year. His cause may well be boosted by the return of fullback Kurtley Beale from injury, with his ability to conjure something from nothing a huge plus for a side looking to score their first victory at Eden Park since 1986. Deans cited injuries and the short turnaround from the semi-final as he announced a side featuring eight changes to that beaten by the All Blacks but you sense that a few of those would be fit for battle if the Webb Ellis Cup was at stake in this game.
Perhaps that willingness to safeguard his players hints at Deans' own thoughts about how worthy a fixture this is, an accusation that could not be laid before his Wales counterpart and fellow Kiwi, Warren Gatland. He has opted for his strongest possible side with Tony Faletau moving from No.8 to openside flanker to fill the void left by the now suspended Warburton with Ryan Jones anchoring the scrum. Wales have their own worries at No.10 with James Hook retaining the jersey despite a disappointing showing against France with doubts also surrounding his understudy Stephen Jones.
Wales have won many friends during this tournament with their refreshing commitment to 15-man rugby and while Australia are more than capable of producing the same you sense that their rivals' superior hunger will be the decisive factor in this game. Wales cannot match Australia's two World Cup triumphs but having been there and done it in the one that matters, the Wallabies, despite their claims to the contrary, may have an aversion to this match up. In contrast, Wales are yet to grace the ultimate stage and the chance to echo the achievement of the Class of '87 and underline the developmental strides made by the current crop of young guns should see them issue a further reminder that they will be a force to watch in the build-up to the next World Cup.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.