If the sign of a long season is the number of changes a coach makes for the last game of the year, then this weekend’s Wales versus Australia clash in Cardiff can’t come soon enough.
Wales coach Wayne Pivac has again been forced into changes for the final match of 2021, while his Australian counterpart, Dave Rennie, has walked the same road since the Wallabies first left Australia in mid-October.
It’s a desperate match for both coaches, and indeed, for both teams.
Wales registered their first win of the Autumn Nations Series last weekend, accounting for a brave Fiji 38-23 in Cardiff after the tourists played the last 57 minutes of the match with 14 men, and two more 10-minute periods within that with just 13.
A red card and two yellows cruelled Fiji’s chance in the game, and Wales only really broke away late, scoring 19 points in the final 14 minutes.
It’s worth noting that, as was the case in both the 2019 and 2015 editions, Fiji and Wales will be in the same pool as Australia in the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France.
Prior to the win over Fiji, Wales went down 23-18 to South Africa, and 54-16 to New Zealand.
Australia enjoyed a winning start to their tour, toppling Japan in Japan en route to the UK, but it’s been grim early morning viewing for Wallabies fans back home since the team landed in Old Blighty, with losses to Scotland and England over the last fortnight.
The motivation to finish the tour with two wins and two losses is clear. The Wallabies haven’t lost all three games in the Great Britain leg of a tour since 1976.
And a win would go a long way toward showing Australian fans that the Wallabies are capable of digging themselves out of a hole, too.
After a strong finish to the Rugby Championship, the spring tour has felt like several backward steps, both in terms of results and playing style.
Hooper ruled out of Wales clash
But now they must desperately chase that one last win for the year without inspirational backrower and captain Michael Hooper, who came from the field early in the second half last week at Twickenham and was ruled out early this week with a mid-foot sprain.
In his place, backrower Pete Samu makes his first start on tour, having played strongly in his bench impact role throughout the Rugby Championship and this series as well.
And the cavalry has returned up front too, with both tighthead props, Taniela Tupou and Allan Ala’alatoa, returning from head knocks suffered in the Scotland loss.
Tupou will start, Ala’alatoa will come off the bench, and their return allows James Slipper to switch back to the loosehead side of the scrum, where he’ll also captain his country for the second time in his career.
French-based hooker Tolu Latu has been promoted to start for the Wallabies, and his strong on-ball work in the breakdown will assist Samu in trying to fill the massive shoes of Hooper.
Backrower Lachie Swinton will play his first match on tour from the bench, while NSW Waratahs midfielder Lalakai Foketi will become Wallaby number 950 if and when he takes the field from the bench in what will be his Test debut.
In all, Rennie has been forced to make another five changes to the starting side to face Wales, having made the same number of changes to each of the XVs to face England and Scotland over the last two weeks as well.
Eight new players will have pulled on the Wallabies jersey for the first time this season on this tour.
‘Spiritual leaders’ absent
Wales are very much in the same boat, and similarly lost their inspirational leader, lock Alun-Wyn Jones, to a shoulder injury in the loss to the All Blacks. They have another half a dozen regular players missing, as well.
In naming his side, Pivac has welcomed back winger Josh Adams and number eight Aaron Wainwright after both players missed the Fiji game, while prop Tomas Francis returns from a concussion injury.
Centre Uilisi Halaholo has been named for his first start of the series after a positive COVID-19 test result last month.
Hooker Ryan Elias has been a constant in the front row this series, one of only three players to start all four of Wales’ Autumn Nations Series Tests, alongside lock Adam Beard and boom backrower Taine Basham.
But Australia isn’t in much better nick in this department.
Andrew Kellaway, centre pairing Hunter Paisami and Len Ikitau, scrumhalf Nic White, backrowers Rob Valetini and Rob Leota, lock Izack Rodda and Slipper are the only Wallabies to start all four of their matches in the north.
Reserve scrumhalf Tate McDermott is the only bench player to have worn the same number in all four games. It’s a lot of chopping and changing.
So we’re left with a clash featuring two injury-plagued sides robbed of their spiritual leaders, trying to finish the last game of the year in a least-worse situation than their opposition, and both equally desperate to finish the series with a second win.
It’s a game that could be terrible, but might just be brilliant. Both sides have shown frustrating glimpses of brilliant rugby through this series that might just embolden them to throw off the shackles for one last burst and end the 2021 rugby year on a high.
Both sets of supporters will be counting on it, in fact.
Wallabies squad: Kurtley Beale, Andrew Kellaway, Len Ikitau, Hunter Paisami, Filipo Daugunu, James O’Connor, Nic White, Rob Valetini, Pete Samu, Rob Leota, Izack Rodda, Rory Arnold, Taniela Tupou, Tolu Latu, James Slipper (C)
Reserves: Folau Fainga’a, Angus Bell, Allan Ala’alatoa, Will Skelton, Lachlan Swinton, Tate McDermott, Lalakai Foketi, Tom Wright
Wales squad: Liam Williams, Louis Rees-Zammit, Nick Tompkins, Uilisi Halaholo, Josh Adams, Dan Biggar, Tomos Williams, Aaron Wainwright, Taine Basham, Ellis Jenkins (captain), Seb Davies, Adam Beard, Tomas Francis, Ryan Elias, Wyn Jones
Reserves: Elliot Dee, Gareth Thomas, Dillon Lewis, Ben Carter, Christ Tshiunza, Gareth Davies, Rhys Priestland, Johnny McNicholl