With Wales taking on the Wallabies on southern hemisphere soil two years before the Lions do exactly the same, we thought we’d take a quick look at a couple of the key battles that could be repeated in 2013.
Friday’s third place play off is the first of five encounters between the two teams over the next eight months and, although the Lions tour is still a distant dream for many of the Welsh players, impressive performances against the Tri Nations Champions surely won’t do their tour chances any harm.
We’ve picked out two head-to-heads to assess prior to the bronze medal fixture and we’ll be looking at two more once Friday’s game is done and dusted.
Mike Phillips vs Will Genia
Mike Phillips travelled to South Africa with the 2009 Lions as favourite for a Test spot and the then Ospreys scrum-half didn’t disappoint. Phillips was one of the outstanding performers in the three-Test series against the Springboks as he challenged Fourie du Preez for the title of the world’s best No9. Now, two years on, Wallaby Will Genia has arguably overtaken both men in the race for that crown, with his recent nomination for the IRB Player of the Year further evidence of his remarkable rise.
Phillips’ own star looked to be on the wane prior to Wales’ wonderful World Cup campaign but the Bayonne-bound 29-year-old is suddenly back to his very best. A try scorer in both the quarter and semi-finals, Phillips has been a constant threat around the base to keep opposition back rows on their toes and away from his outside backs.
But while it is his combative nature and individual attacking talents that have again caught the eye since early September, the real improvement in Phillips’ game has been the quality of his service. Often derided for his passing ability, critics were calling for Phillips to be replaced by the speedier hands of Lloyd Williams or Tavis Knoyle in the lead up to the World Cup opener with the Springboks but Phillips has made those outsiders eat their words.
Phillips’ will never rival understudy Williams for the quality or quickness of his pass but he has done more than enough to hand halfback partners Rhys Priestland, Jmaes Hook and Stephen Jones an easy ride so far in New Zealand. If Phillips continues his current form all the way into 2013, then England’s Ben Youngs will have plenty to do if he is to fulfill the newspaper talk that had been heralding him as the man set to start at scrum-half the summer after next.
Mike Phillips was outstanding for the 2009 Lions
As for Genia, the Queensland Reds vice-captain was always tipped for big things and, like Phillips, he’s lived up to hefty expectations. Described as the new George Gregan following the 139-cap legend’s retirement, Genia is far and away his country’s premier No9.
Since making his international debut against the Boks just weeks after the Lions left South Africa, Genia has become one of the most consistent performers in the Wallaby set up. The Wallabies’ Players Player of the Year in 2010, Genia guided the Reds to Super 15 glory last season before playing a starring role in Australia’s first Tri Nations triumph in a decade. And despite the disappointment of defeats to Ireland and the All Blacks in the current World Cup, Genia has been one of the few players never in danger of losing his place or of facing a massive media backlash.
Will Genia is up for the IRB Player of the Year Award
Verdict: Rarely will you meet two equally-dangerous scrum-halves with distinctively different skill sets. Phillips has the physicality, Genia the pace and speed of service, but both are a major threat to opposition defences with their attacking abilities close to the ruck and out wide. If Phillips can ensure Wallaby openside David Pocock is forced to keep one eye on him at all times then Wales will have half the battle won but if Genia can generate the kind of quick ball the Wallabies love, then Quade Cooper and co could put the Welsh defence under even greater pressure than the Boks, the Irish and the French.
Jamie Roberts vs Adam Ashley-Cooper
Jamie Roberts earned selection for the last Lions tour as a centre but most observers were unsure where he would feature and few had him pencilled in for a Test spot. Roberts had appeared at full back, on the wing and in both midfield positions for Wales since his international debut in the 2008 RBS 6 Nations but was yet to make any of the four spots his own.
By the time the Lions departed the Republic in July 2009, no one was in any doubt as to where Roberts was best employed. The shining light of a memorable Lions adventure, Roberts was named HSBC Player of the Tour after a string of stunning performances at inside centre. His partnership with Brian O’Driscoll gave the Lions graft, guile, power and pace in the middle of the park, with Roberts outdoing his celebrated team-mate in the individual stakes.
A wrist injury ended his tour one game short of a full set of Tests but Roberts’ reputation had grown immensely during the seven weeks away from home. Like Phillips, he failed to find his best form in the two seasons that followed the Lions tour, with surgery and the fact that he was often man-marked by more than one opponent a major factor in his slip in standards. But by the time the World Cup began, Roberts was well on the road to greatness again and his performances Down Under have only highlighted his abilities once more.
Described by Wallaby World Cup winner Tim Horan as the player of the tournament, Roberts has been at the heart of a massive Welsh revival. His direct angles of running, ability to get over the gain line and his uncanny knack of creating space for others have been key to Welsh success, while his defensive strengths have been a crucial part of a team record that boasts than nine points conceded per game in New Zealand.
Jamie Roberts is finding his famous Lions form once again
Roberts’ opposite number on Friday will be Berrick Barnes but it is Australia’s own Mr Versatile in Adam Ashley-Cooper with whom he is likely to have the biggest battle. Another player with experience at full back, wing and centre, Ashley-Cooper’s preference is to wear the No13 shirt, the one he has been handed for Friday’s final World Cup fixture.
Whereas Barnes provides the Wallabies with a second receiver option thanks to his ball-playing abilities and experience at fly-half, Ashley-Cooper is so often their go-to man. A direct runner like Roberts but blessed with more pace, the Waratahs veteran is rarely overlooked by the Australian selectors. It’s true that he’s often employed on the wing, just as he was when Digby Ioane was injured and James O’Connor suspended, but he’s pretty much always in the mix. And with time still on the 27-year-old’s side, it would be a big surprise if he wasn’t involved when the Lions come calling in two seasons’ time.
As far as Friday’s game is concerned, whoever gets over the gain line quickest and more often will have a big bearing on the result, with Roberts and Ashley-Cooper key men in that particular area. If Wales can keep the Wallaby midfield focused on defence rather than attack then a repeat of their 1987 World Cup victory is a real possibility but if Ashley-Cooper can find space outside Roberts and Jonathan Davies then Ioane, O’Connor and Kurtley Beale could have a field day.
Adam Ashley-Cooper scored a hat-trick against the USA
Verdict: Roberts may be the coming man of northern hemisphere rugby once again but never write off Ashley-Cooper. The Welshman’s power in attack and solidity in defence mean he is likely to be a global star for years to come but Ashley-Cooper has never been one to let the Wallabies down. Front foot ball could be the crucial factor on Friday – if the Wallabies gain superiority then Ashley-Cooper will be in his element but if the Aussies are forced on to retreat then Roberts won’t knock politely before barging the door down.
And the one that got away…
Sam Warburton vs David Pocock
This should have been the big one. Unfortunately for Warburton it wasn’t to be. The youngster’s harsh red card in the semi-final defeat to France not only robbed Wales of a place in the game’s showpiece event, it also resulted in a three-week ban that brought his tournament to a premature end.
The world will now have to wait until early December when Australia arrive in Cardiff for an autumn Test to see this particular back-row battle. It’s a battle that could well decide who comes out on top when the Lions land in OZ in 19 months time.
All Black skipper Richie McCaw may have been the globe’s stand-out openside for much of the 21st century but he finally has some competition for that standing thanks to the emergence of the two 23-year-olds. Both are likely to be in their prime when the Lions landed on Australian shores, leaving us all to look forward to the mouth-watering encounter we’ve been cruelly denied this time around.