Preview: Australia v Wales

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Australia and Wales will fight it out to take top spot in Pool A on Saturday when they meet at Twickenham.

Before the Rugby World Cup began we expected to this to be a do-or-die game for both sides, but their outstanding wins over England over the last two weeks set that script on fire.

Wales' win was all about character, while the Wallabies simply outclassed England from start to finish. The pair of them will be worthy quarter-finalists having emerged from the 'group of death'.

Wales it shouldn't be forgotten have advanced without two players who were seen as integral to their success in Rhys Webb and Leigh Halfpenny.

Each of those losses has been accounted for with Gareth Davies and Dan Biggar stepping up, and Warren Gatland's squad had to dig deep to see off Fiji last Thursday only a few days after their euphoric win at Twickenham.

They will have enjoyed a nine-day break to prepare for the Wallabies but watching this weekend's foe hammer England has allowed Gatland to relax a little knowing Wales are through – reflected in him publicly expressing sympathy for the hosts and experimenting with his selections.

Selecting first Gareth Anscombe at full-back and then George North at 13 is exciting – born out of necessity after the injuries to Davies and now Scott Williams – but still a little left-field. Cheika though was ready for a surprise, describing Gatland as the "master coach" in his press conference after seeing off England.

Wales' record though against Australia has to be addressed.

No wins since 2008 is the bold headline but look closer at the detail, and Wales have lost to the Wallabies in their last five matches by the following points margins – 2, 1, 2, 4 and 5.  

Over their last nine Tests, Australia’s average margin of victory is just 4.4 points. The tide has to turn eventually for Wales, surely. But can it on Saturday?

Watching the Wallabies raid Twickenham has forced us to reassess just how much they can achieve in this Rugby World Cup.

Escaping Pool A has proved to be barely a struggle for an Australian squad who last year were in turmoil following the resignation of Ewen McKenzie.

Michael Cheika has got to know each of his players and now is maximising their talent. Winning the battle with the ARU to bring back in players like Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell has paid off, as has the return to Australia of Dean Mumm and Kane Douglas.

The new lock pairing were off the Wallabies' grid at the start of 2015 but having won spots in the squad, ahead of former captain James Horwill, Cheika's move to bring them back in is working.

What Cheika now needs from his side is consistency. After defeating New Zealand for the first time in four years earlier this year, they went to Auckland and were thrashed 41-13.

As lessons in complacency go it was a timely one. Australia might be in the quarter-finals, but a match-up against one of Scotland or Japan would be far more favourable than having to face the Springboks again in a World Cup quarter-final.

Two factors are key; continuing the upward curve in the scrum, which Mario Ledesma has left a telling mark on, and the performance of Bernard Foley. Few could lay a finger on the fly-half in 2014 but this year his form has blown hot and cold.

He was outstanding though at Twickenham, the star of the show both off the tee and with ball in hand for his two tries. Foley at his best, as we've seen, makes the Wallabies a different beast.

Ones to Watch:

For Australia: The idea of Cheika getting the best out of his players is practically embodied in Will Genia. The Reds scrum-half had a shocking time of it in Super Rugby and was the Wallabies third-choice scrum-half in the Rugby Championship, but is now the start and looks like the player who was widely regarded as the best scrum-half in the world four years ago. He might have been embarrassed to earn a spot in the squad ahead of Nic White, but he's doing him proud.

For Wales: Leaving out Gethin Jenkins to go with Paul James is a surprising call from Gatland, but Wales need to tighten up at scrum-time after the way they were harried by Fiji. The 33-year-old started against Uruguay but has otherwise been confined to the bench in 2015. James might not offer what Jenkins does around the park, but hold his own against an in-form Sekope Kepu and his work will be done.

Head-to-head: Watching Israel Folau line up against former Chiefs' full-back Gareth Anscombe (in his first Test at 15) will be worth keeping tabs on, while the scrum could prove to be a massive turning point. But it's the back row battle between Sean McMahon and David Pocock up against Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric that grabs the headlines. 

McMahon's good form in 2015 makes him a no-brainer to come in for Hooper and he was man of the match against Uruguay. Meanwhile, England could have played Australia for 160 minutes and still would have failed to contain Pocock's brilliance over the ball. For Wales, Warburton has underlined why he is such a highly-rated captain among his fellow players with consecutively hard shifts that fly under the radar.

Tipuric though is the fascinating call. Gatland might be taking the cautious approach with Dan Lydiate'a fitness, but Welsh fans have been hollering to see Warburton and Tipuric in tandem again- a duo capable of ruling the ruck much like Hooper and Pocock have in recent weeks. Tipuric was also excellent when he last started against Ireland back in August. Saturday's outcome will hinge on this area, no question.

Previous results:

2014: Australia won 33-28 in Cardiff
2013: Australia won 30-26 in Cardiff
2012: Australia won 14-12 in Cardiff
2012: Australia won 20-19 in Sydney
2012: Australia won 25-23 on the Gold Goast
2012: Australia won 27-19 in Brisbane
2011: Australia won 24-18 in Cardiff
2011: Australia won 21-18 in Auckland
2010: Australia won 25-16 in Cardiff
2009: Australia won 30-12 in Cardiff
2008: Wales won 21-18 in Cardiff

Prediction: Wales have sprung one major surprise on us already in this group stage but concerns over their scrum and the way Stephen Moore's front row went at Twickenham last weekend, along with Wales' untested backline, swings the pendulum Australia's way. Wallabies by 7.

Australia: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Matt Giteau, 11 Drew Mitchell, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Will Genia, 8 David Pocock, 7 Sean McMahon, 6 Scott Fardy, 5 Dean Mumm, 4 Kane Douglas, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Stephen Moore (c) 1 Scott Sio
Replacements: 16 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 17 James Slipper, 18 Greg Holmes, 19 Rob Simmons, 20 Ben McCalman, 21 Nick Phipps, 22 Matt Toomua, 23 Kurtley Beale

Wales: 15 Gareth Anscombe, 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 George North, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 Liam Williams, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Gareth Davies, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 Sam Warburton (c), 5 Alun Wyn Jones, 4 Luke Charteris, 3 Samson Lee, 2 Scott Baldwin, 1 Paul James
Replacements: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Aaron Jarvis, 18 Tom Francis, 19 Jake Ball, 20 Ross Moriarty, 21 Lloyd Williams, 22 Rhys Priestland, 23 James Hook

Date: Saturday, October 11
Venue: Twickenham
Kick-off: 16:45 local (15:45 GMT)
Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa)
Assistant Referees: Jérôme Garcès (France), Stuart Berry (South Africa)
TMO: Shaun Veldsman (South Africa)

by Ben Coles