Welsh are capable of beating the Wallabies in Australia
Australia's James O'Connor is tackled by Wales' Toby Faletau. AP Photo/Rob Griffith
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After 62 minutes of a hard, engrossing Test between Wales and France at Millennium Stadium on Saturday, the visitors tried to spark one of their sporadic but menacing counter-attacks with the scoreboard favouring the Welsh at 13-6.
Replacement fullback Jean-Marcelin Buttin took a flat ball in midfield where rumours of space were beginning to emerge. For a second it looked like he might get in behind the Welsh.
Then came the collision.
It sounded like a clap of thunder through the microphone of referee Craig Joubert, an eyewitness nearby. It was the thud of Welsh blindside flanker Dan Lydiate closing the door in Buttin’s face with such velocity that it lifted Welsh lock Ian Evans off his feet as Buttin ricocheted into him and spilt the ball.
It was the tackle that would have been heard in North Sydney. Not since the England side of 2002-2003, has the northern hemisphere supplied a team that threatens the southern superpowers quite the way Wales do.
Little wonder that Michael Lynagh, who works as an analyst for Sky Sports in the UK, said this in the aftermath of Wales’ Grand Slam win: “Wales are certainly capable of beating Australia this summer.”
Praising northern hemisphere sides is a precarious business, but you can admire them without being either a deluded apologist or on the payroll. Lydiate is one of seven Welsh players who are, on current form, superior to their Wallaby counterparts.
It is a rather crude analytical tool, but in a hypothetical XV, five positions would be locked down by Australians and the remaining three would be decided either by a brawl or a toss of the coin. Let’s start with the positions where the Welsh have the edge.
The Welsh scrum is the finest in Europe, with tight-head Adam Jones far in advance of any Australian cornerstones. In the second row, Alun Wyn-Jones has matured into the sort of engine-room powerhouse the Wallabies thought they were getting with the return of Dan Vickerman.
At No.8, the bruising Toby Faletau grabs the jersey on the back of another hard-shouldered display against France. Radike Samo is fine in open spaces but he had an underwhelming World Cup and Wycliff Palu simply needs to string some games together.
On the blindside Lydiate, an inspirational tackling machine, is ahead of Scott Higginbotham not on talent but on what he has done with it. Higginbotham, with that imposing chassis, is not the yet dominant force his potential suggests he can be.
In the centres, there is no reason to split the partnership of Jamie Roberts and Johnathan Davies, a mix of brute power and classy touches. And they are only going to get better. Roberts is still only 25 and at 109kg gets over the gainline like no other back in world rugby. The Wallabies are still searching for their midfield.
On one wing would lurk the 110kg George North, whose surprisingly light feet and security under the high ball makes him much more than just a bulldozer.
Stephen Moore is the first of the Australian probables, at hooker, although he is not at the level which prompted Sean Fitzpatrick to crown him the world’s best a few years back.
Among the backs, the peerless Will Genia, who was wonderful against the Sharks at the weekend, commands the No.9 jersey. Mike Phillips is a brute, but no one runs the game or sees the space like Genia. Pray for his continued health, because there is a long way down until the next best.
James O’Connor occupies the No.10 spot, because room must be made for that footwork and pace. In addition, Rhys Priestland’s form has been poor at times during the Six Nations. He looks a little weary.
Digby Ioane rediscovered something close to his best form in Durban and is a certainty for the No.11 jersey, dubious tackle technique notwithstanding.
At fullback, the powerful claims of Leigh Halfpenny, admired recently by Roar colleague David Campese, must regrettably be ignored. Without Quade Cooper we must look elsewhere for a little magic and it comes in the form of Kurtley Beale – if those worrying series of injuries clear up.
Now things become particularly heated.
At openside David Pocock would be in the team by Monday but by Tuesday Sam Warburton’s all-round game would prompt a re-think. On Wednesday a coaching meeting is required to see who wants to flip a coin. They are that close.
Getting caught at the wrong side of the ruck is among the little flaws that are holding James Horwill back from the pinnacle. It is difficult to look innocuous standing at 200cm and 118kg in a bright yellow jersey. But his experience probably gives him the start ahead of Ian Evans, whose injuries have kept him back until now.
On the loose-head side of the scrum Gethin Jenkins and Benn Robinson share technical excellence at the set-piece and a scavenger’s instinct at the breakdown. But Robinson is still on the comeback from that injury and Jenkins’ extra mobility might appeal.
It is fitting that we finish on a call that could go either way.
Of course, no one can predict the state of Welsh minds and bodies when they touch down in Australia for the three June Tests. Already, an injury cloud is hanging over Warburton, who admitted his body has been “creaking” since the World Cup.
They practically jumped straight off the plane from New Zealand and into club duties and have been playing ever since.
But this Welsh side is good enough to beat the Wallabies in Australia.
Can they win twice and take the series? Perhaps we need to flip another coin. A series win might have to wait until the following year, when many of the Welsh team will return as part of the British and Irish Lions.
Paul Cully is a freelance journalist who was born in New Zealand, raised in Northern Ireland, but spent most of his working life in Australia. He is a former Sun-Herald sports editor, rugby tragic, and current Roar and RugbyHeaven contributor.
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