Warren Gatland may have tried to play it down, but the Wales coach knows better than anyone how much it would mean to his side to beat Australia in Cardiff today.
Reigning Six Nations champions Wales may have won two European Grand Slams since Gatland became their coach in 2008, but his adopted country’s record against southern hemisphere giants New Zealand, South Africa and Australia in the same period is dire, with just one win and 21 defeats.
Wales have lost their past eight Tests against Australia, albeit four of those reverses have been by three points or fewer, most recently in last year’s fixture at the Millennium Stadium where Kurtley Beale’s late try condemned the Welsh to a 14-12 defeat.
The losing streak is all the more concerning for Wales given they have been drawn alongside Australia and 2015 hosts England in the same World Cup “group of death.”
Gatland tried to explain that poor run of results by saying: “People have got to be aware that probably in the past we’ve used [the November internationals] as a preparation for the Six Nations because that’s our bread and butter — these are friendlies.”
“Our focus has changed a bit this autumn,” he said.
However, unimpressed Wallaby coach Ewen McKenzie said: “They’ve decided suddenly it’s time to actually go out and beat those teams, I don’t know why they weren’t deciding that last year or the year before.”
“He [Gatland] has been at it since 2008, he’s had plenty of time to make that decision,” he said.
This year Gatland coached the British and Irish Lions to a 2-1 series win in Australia and 11 of the players from that squad are in his Wales starting lineup, including fit-again wing Alex Cuthbert and powerhouse flyer George North.
Completing the back three is fullback Leigh Halfpenny, man of the series in Australia, but still eager to transfer that form from the red shirt of the Lions to the red of Wales.
“We have been close many times now, one or two points in it,” Halfpenny said.
“It has been very frustrating at times when we’ve come off and felt like we played the better rugby, but it didn’t quite win the game,” he said. “Now we have to go to that next level by beating the southern hemisphere teams like Australia.”
Unfortunately for Wales, Australia head into the final major international of the season on their best run of form of the year with successive wins over Italy, Ireland and Scotland following a tour-opening defeat by England that scuppered all hope of a Grand Slam.
Today’s match is set to see flyhalf Quade Cooper, frozen out by former Australia coach Robbie Deans, win his 50th cap.
Meanwhile, backs Nick Cummins and Adam Ashley-Cooper return, having been among a group of players banned by McKenzie from playing in Edinburgh for their part in a late night drinking session in Dublin.
It was a calculated risk by Mc-Kenzie, but one that appeared to do the Wallabies little harm against a Scotland side that rarely looked like scoring a try during Australia’s 21-15 win last weekend.
Wales ought to pose a more attacking threat, although they themselves were rendered tryless by South Africa earlier this month.
Several Australia players, including captain and No. 8 Ben Mowen, have played more than 30 matches this season.
However, McKenzie insisted fatigue would not be an excuse today.
“We’re treating this week a little bit like our Grand Final,” said the former Australia prop, a World Cup winner as a player in 1991.
“I think everyone will be extremely motivated by the circumstances of the game and the opportunity to play Wales in their backyard,” McKenzie said.
One thing both packs in particular will hope for is an improvement in the quality of the Millennium’s notoriously poor pitch, otherwise scrums, as was sometimes the case on an unusually unstable surface at Murrayfield, could well become a lottery.