Since the first Rugby World Cup in 1987, Wales have played Australia 28 times and won twice. The last time was 10 years ago, in Autumn 2008. Since then, it’s been 13 consecutive defeats. Such a one-sided relationship can’t really be described as a rivalry. For Welsh fans, the Australian team is their nemesis. No matter what the form book says going into the game, the Wallabies always seem to win.
This time round, the Wallabies really do look vulnerable. They had a poor Rugby Championship and lack depth in key positions. Meanwhile, Wales, sitting third in the world rankings, look quite good. They have improved their strength in depth considerably. They’re on a run of seven wins. They may even have solved the seemingly never-ending fly-half debate, with Gareth Anscombe putting in an excellent performance against Scotland. But does any of that matter? Will Wales finally beat Australia?
Will Wales finally beat Australia? History says no.
There is added spice to this fixture. On top of Wales’ woeful recent history against the Wallabies, they will be in the same pool in upcoming Rugby World Cup. The two teams have actually played each other in the past three World Cups, with Australia winning each time. In fact, they have met in every World Cup except 1995 and 2003. Wales have only won once, for those keeping track.
Undeniably, it would be a huge mental boost for this Wales team to win. But will the added pressure tell? After all, they have come so close before…
The lows and lows (and one high) for Wales fans
In some of these contests, Wales have come agonisingly close. In others, the gap between the two has seemed more like a chasm. Is there anything Wales can learn from all the losses of the past 10 years? Here are some of the standout matches.
November 2009: Wales 12–33 Australia
After the Welsh victory in the previous year, hopes of a consecutive victory were high among fans. Australia came into the game on the back of a loss to Scotland whereas Wales had enjoyed a promising autumn.
But this would be one of the games where form was irrelevant. The gap between the sides felt like a chasm. Australia raced into a three-try lead within 25 minutes and never looked like losing. Early injuries to Shane Williams, Leigh Halfpenny, and Matthew Rees didn’t help Wales but their opponents were outstanding.
Not for the last time, Matt Giteau and Will Genia shone. Elsewhere, David Pocock starred for the first time against Wales, picking up a try along the way. Sam Warburton would go on to describe him as the most difficult openside he ever played against and this was an early example of his abilities.
November 2012: Wales 12–14 Australia
“That’s the worst defeat I’ve ever been involved with”, said former Wales captain Sam Warburton after this defeat. Wales had always been in the game and were leading with seconds on the clock and a lineout in Australia’s 22.
But then they lost the lineout, conceded a try, and saw Leigh Halfpenny stretchered off. Moreover, the defeat knocked them out of the top eight in the world rankings, consigning them to the now infamous “Pool of Death” in the 2015 Rugby World Cup. This one was a real kicker.
October 2015 (RWC): Australia 15–6 Wales
After memorably beating England in their own World Cup at Twickenham, Wales went into this game on a high. Victory would mean they were almost certain to top the pool, an incredible achievement considering the group also contained a dangerous Fiji team.
It was a game with some quite brilliant defending from both sides and a genuine contest at the breakdown, with three of the world’s best opensides in Pocock, Michael Hooper, and Warburton. Neither team could score a try, despite Wales spending around 10 minutes camped out on the Wallaby tryline while their opponents were down to 13 men. The defeat gave them a more difficult draw in the knockout stage, where they lost to South Africa.
November 2016: Wales 8–32 Australia
By this game, most Wales fans probably had low expectations. After all, they’d been there so many times before. Australia had been white-washed at home by England in their summer tour and they looked a long way from the Rugby World Cup finalists the year before. But the form book had long been throw out of the window for this fixture.
Welsh hopes were lowered further when the outstanding Jonathan Davies withdrew just before kickoff with an injury. If there were any fans who still believed, it can’t have lasted long. Bernard Foley marshalled his team like a magician and they raced to a 3-20 lead by half-time.
In truth, Australia’s scoring was limited by their own mistakes as much as Welsh pressure, with Foley missing three conversions and his team-mates wasting three more try-scoring opportunities. Even by the regular standards of this fixture, this defeat felt like a low.
The one they won
November 2008: Wales 21–18 Australia
Shane Williams was World Player of the Year in 2008 and he showed exactly why in this game. Having inspired Wales to a Grand Slam in the 6 Nations earlier that year, he started and finished a wonderful try in the third minute of the game. Later, he provided full-back Lee Byrne with a perfect pass for him to take, bursting through the line to score.
It wasn’t all Wales. Australia, looking for a clean sweep of northern hemisphere fixtures, caused them enormous trouble at the lineout and kept going to the very last, scoring a try with the clock red to narrow the scoreline. But Gatland’s 2008 team were brilliant in defence, clinical in attack, and had a winger in the form of his life. It’s hard to beat that kind of combo.
Can Wales finally beat Australia again, repeating the success of 2008?
Wales have contrived to lose to Australia in myriad ways. Malfunctioning set-pieces, poor starts, turnstile defending, missed kicks, losing the lead in the dying seconds – Wales fans have seen them all. That’s a lot of mistakes to learn from and no team wilfully ignores these things.
But hope springs eternal: if it didn’t, sports would be a lot less interesting. And Wales fans probably wouldn’t keep watching their team play Australia without it. The Wallabies are currently ranked seventh in the world, their lowest ever position. Wales are third, quietly making their way through a very successful year.
Happy birthday Israel Folau ? throwback to his fireman’s carry with George North ? pic.twitter.com/y4ldZz85oa
— Rugby Lives (@RugbyLives) April 3, 2017
Despite extensive injuries to the back row, they could still field a team with three British & Irish Lions at six, seven, and eight, if they chose – although they might opt for Ellis Jenkins over Dan Lydiate if fit, to combat the twin turnover threat of Hooper and Pocock. They have the option of an in-form fly-half with thrillingly attacking instincts in Gareth Anscombe, whereas neither Foley nor Kurtley Beale have been playing well at 10 for the Aussies. They have Alun-Wyn Jones, still one of the best players in the world and a formidable leader. And, of course, George North once put Israel Folau in a fireman’s lift.
Of course they can do it. But will they? We’ve been here before, after all.
Wales v Australia, 17.20 GMT, Cardiff.
Main image credit: Embed from Getty Images