The international window has closed, and most people have moved on. How Wales and Australia must feel they could join them. But, no, they must rouse themselves once more – in Australia’s case for a fifth weekend in a row – to satisfy the baying hordes of fans and corporate suits.
Both might feel like the poor relations of their respective circles, all the more so in their battered and weakened states – and a cursory glance at their walking wounded and positions on the rankings ladder will supply ample reason for them to feel that way. Wales are coming off the fresh indignity of a home defeat to Georgia, while Australia were hardly any more enamoured of their first defeat to Italy in Florence the weekend before that.
It goes without saying, both sides have made changes, although Australia’s are to the side that lost with honour to Ireland last weekend. Their three-point defeat in Dublin was their heaviest of this tour, every other match on it having been decided by a single point. The first was their only win, against Scotland at Murrayfield, a week before that international window had creaked open, but since then they have lost to France, with honour, to Italy, with opprobrium, and to Ireland.
Wales have a win over Argentina in their credit column this autumn, albeit hardly inspiring, but their defeats by New Zealand (comprehensive) and Georgia (humiliating) put them firmly in the red, not only for November but the entire calendar year, in which they have won three of 11, taking in a defeat to Italy all of their own making.
Inevitably, there are changes for both teams. Each coach is under pressure, each a New Zealander. Wayne Pivac and Dave Rennie have not quite sprinkled the magic of those far-off isles on these two teams, certainly if results are anything to go by. Both will claim the mitigation of works in progress.
Pivac’s case may be harder to argue, given he includes six players with 626 Wales caps between them, 200 more than those of Australia’s starting line-up. Alun Wyn Jones, Leigh Halfpenny and Taulupe Faletau are among six changes to the side that lost to Georgia, and they supply 345 of those caps between them.
On the work-in-progress front, though, Pivac awards a first cap to the 20-year-old Ospreys centre Joe Hawkins, who will line up alongside his clubmate Gareth Anscombe, another returnee to the side. Rio Dyer, the winger who scored on his debut against the All Blacks this month, is the sixth change. He is 22 and wins his second cap. Several of the players Pivac has used this autumn have returned to their English clubs, given the game’s status outside the window, including Louis Rees-Zammit and Nick Tompkins.
Rennie’s touring party, meanwhile, has been reduced to 25 fit players. Nic White returned to the field in Dublin under controversial circumstances, having suffered an evident brain injury, but he sits this out, alongside Michael Hooper and Dave Porecki, who are suffering from the same. Taniela Tupou, the mighty Tongan Thor, was felled in the same match by his own Achilles. He will be out for seven months.
There are first starts in a Test for Ben Donaldson at outhalf and the wrecking ball at No 8 Langi Gleeson. They are among seven changes to the Wallabies. Jake Gordon replaces White to pair up with his Waratahs team-mate at half-back, while Folau Fainga’a replaces Porecki, and Fraser McReight steps in for Hooper. Gleeson is a replacement for another casualty, Rob Valetini, while further absentees are replaced by Reece Hodge at inside-centre and Jordan Petaia, who came on in the fourth minute last weekend, on the wing. Tom Wright switches to full-back.
It is hard to see which team has the most to gain – or rather the most not to lose. The losers will equal their record for most defeats in a calendar year. Australia are eighth and Wales ninth in the world rankings. If Italy continue their recent form, Wales would soon be in danger of becoming the lowest-ranked team of the Six Nations. Otherwise, every other Tier One nation is ahead of both of them. Well might Wales and Australia yearn for the sound of that window creaking shut.
WALES: Halfpenny; Cuthbert, North, Hawkins, Dyer; Anscombe, T Williams; Thomas, Owens, Lewis; Beard, AW Jones, Morgan, Tipuric (capt), Faletau. Replacements: Elias, R Jones, Francis, Carter, Macleod, Hardy, Priestland, Adams
AUSTRALIA: Wright; Petaia, Ikitau, Hodge, Nawaqanitawase; Donaldson, Gordon; Slipper (capt), Fainga’a, Alaalatoa, Frost, Neville, Holloway, McReight, Gleeson. Replacements: Lonergan, Robertson, Talakai, Hanigan, Samu, McDermott, Lolesio, Campbell