TOKYO, 28 Sep - A preview of the Pool D game between Wales and Australia which kicks-off at 16:45 on Sunday at Tokyo Stadium.
The Big Picture
The Wales players have freely admitted this week that they have had a big red circle around this game in their diaries since the schedule was first announced.
The same is probably true of their Australia counterparts. As pivotal group games go, few could have been more important than this one.
Both teams go into the game having won their World Cup opener. Wales bagged their bonus point by half-time against Georgia before easing off while Australia needed a second-half comeback to see off a fierce challenge from Fiji.
So for Sunday’s winners, topping the pool is all but assured and the route to the final on November 2 is a seemingly easier path with England and New Zealand unlikely to provide the opposition.
But if Wales lose they will face another crucial game against a Fiji side that could still snatch second spot behind the Wallabies with a win despite that unexpected defeat against Uruguay. The upside for Wales is the 10-day turnaround before the game at Oita Stadium on 9 October.
"We have not really looked too far ahead. If you do get out of the group all quarter-finals are going to be pretty tough. It is about taking one game at a time and trying to build and create momentum," said coach Warren Gatland.
"We feel as if we are a team who are capable of doing that, the longer we go in tournaments we feel as if we get better and more cohesive."
Winning against Australia is something Wales have struggled to do in Gatland’s tenure. In 19 meetings, Wales have triumphed just twice though they did end a 13-game losing record with a 9-6 victory the last time the sides met in Cardiff in November 2018.
At World Cups, the only win in six attempts for Wales came in the first meeting: the third/fourth place play-off in New Zealand in 1987 when full-back Paul Thorburn snatched victory with a late conversion from the touch-line.
Wales reckon Australia coach Michael Cheika has paid them the ultimate compliment by recalling the experienced duo of scrum-half Will Genia and fly-half Bernard Foley to counter the kicking threat of Wales’s fly-half Dan Biggar.
Cheika has different ideas.
"Not form decisions at all. I just want to make a different picture for this game. It's a different group of players and I've spoken to the players about that," he said.
"They know what their jobs are, with their piece of the puzzle throughout the World Cup."
Form guide (most recent matches first)
Played 42 - Wales 11W, Australia 30W, 1 Draw
In the spotlight:
Alun Wyn Jones is a man who does not like the spotlight off the pitch, rarely talking about his achievements and this week has been no different.
But the Wales captain and lock will become the record cap holder for his country when he runs out for his 130th appearance. Add the nine tests for the British and Irish Lions and he joins former Australia scrum-half George Gregan in fourth (139) on the all-time list.
Wales have named an unchanged line-up from the victory over Georgia. There was some debate about recalling Ross Moriarty at flanker, but Aaron Wainwright has kept his place.
Centre Hadleigh Parkes has a small fracture in his hand so Owen Watkin has been drafted on to the replacements bench as cover.
After the gainline playing Christian Lealiifano started at fly-half for both of Australia’s concluding Rugby Championship matches this year and against Fiji, Cheika has chosen to bring in Foley for his 71st cap among four changes to his starting XV.
The Waratahs playmaker did start in the corresponding pool-stage fixture four years ago, scoring all of Australia’s points in the 15-6 victory. But Foley has not been as reliable from the tee of late, missing four out of six kicks in the final warm-up game against Samoa and registering a success rate of just 79 per cent in Super Rugby this year.
Cheika has also gone for experience and stability across the back three, recalling Adam Ashley-Cooper on the right wing in place of the suspended Reece Hodge and plumping for the reliable Dane Haylett-Petty over the more explosive Kurtley Beale at full-back.
The forward pack, which, courtesy of two rolling-maul tries, helped drag the Wallabies back from a nine-point second half deficit against Fiji, is unchanged.
Stats and Trivia
Alun Wyn Jones will feature in his 17th RWC match. Only Gethin Jenkins (18) has played in more for Wales.
Adam Ashley-Cooper becomes just the second Wallaby to play in four RWCs after George Gregan. This will be his 18th career RWC match, the most by any player at RWC 2019.
"Alun Wyn Jones is an inspirational player. When we are talking about key people and what makes a champion I always say it’s when a player can do something special in the right moment against the world’s best. He is one of those. He will carry, clean out or make a decision under pressure that is inspirational for his team." - New Zealand’s 1987 World Cup winner John Kirwan.
"They all have southern hemisphere coaches, don't they?” - Australia fly-half Bernard Foley on the recent improved results of northern hemisphere teams.