Australia will look to end a see-saw 2011 with victory over Wales on Saturday as they bid to repeat their recent third place playoff win at the World Cup.
A bronze medal was not the summit of the Wallabies’ ambitions when they travelled to coach Robbie Deans’s native New Zealand having won the Tri-Nations.
But a comprehensive semi-final defeat by the All Blacks, the eventual champions, left Australia with much to ponder.
Some observers have accused Deans of building sides that don’t play to Australia’s traditional strengths, but the ‘Wallaby way’ of running rugby is set to be on show this weekend against a Wales side whose preferred style is also to attack with ball in hand.
One area where Australia might glean some useful benefit from a match tacked on to the end of a busy schedule is in seeing how James O’Connor performs in his first Test match start at fly-half.
O’Connor, deputising for the injured Quade Cooper, looked good in open play and as a goal-kicker during Australia’s 60-11 rout of the Barbarians at Twickenham last weekend, even if the invitational side’s defence was woeful.
Cooper has been out of action ever since pulling up with a knee injury during the playoff match at Eden Park.
Australia centre Berrick Barnes, a proven and composed playmaker, has recovered from a back problem but fellow midfielder Rob Horne is struggling with a hamstring injury suffered during training on Thursday and could be replaced by Anthony Fainga’a.
Meanwhile lock Rob Simmons replaces Nathan Sharpe in the only change to the Wallaby pack from their October clash with the Welsh.
Additional incentive for the hosts comes with the knowledge that this match will be Wales wing Shane Williams’s last match before his Test retirement and the bulk of the Millennium Stadium crowd will be hoping the double Grand Slam winner, whose 57 tries are a Welsh record, bows out in style.
“We experienced ourselves how powerful the additional motivation of playing for a mate can be when ‘Sharpie’ (Sharpe) had his 100th Test in Auckland (against Wales) recently,” Deans said.
“There was no way any of the other players wanted to let him down.
“I have no doubts that the Welsh lads will be feeling just the same this week as we did in Auckland. Emotion plays a powerful role in competitive sport.”
After winning just once in four visits to Cardiff between 2005 and 2008, Australia will bid for a third straight Millennium victory this weekend.
Wales welcome back captain Sam Warburton, who missed the 21-18 playoff defeat after being sent off in the World Cup semi-final loss to France, and his breakdown battle with opposing openside flanker David Pocock provides an intriguing sub-plot.
The Welsh are without injured locks Luke Charteris and Alun-Wyn Jones, props Adam Jones and Paul James, plus centre Jonathan Davies.
Cardiff prop Scott Andrews makes his first Wales start in place of Adam Jones in a side showing six changes from the World Cup clash, with backs James Hook and Mike Phillips unavailable due to commitments with French clubs Perpignan and Bayonne respectively.
“We know Australia will be tough this weekend,” Gatland said.
“In the game against the Barbarians they made a very slow start, but as the game went on they looked very strong, especially in the second half.”
SBS will broadcast the rugby international between Wales and Australia from Millennium Stadium in Cardiff LIVE at 1:15am (AEDT) on Sunday 4 December.
Michael Tomalaris will host SBS’s coverage and will be joined by Al Baxter, Australia’s most-capped prop, and 1999 World Cup winner Matt Burke, Australia’s second highest points scorer in history.