LONDON (Reuters) - Ever since the Rugby World Cup draw in late 2012 Wales have been scratching their heads as to how they ended up in the same pool as heavyweights England and Australia.
Despite reaching the semi-finals in 2011 Wales were surprisingly ranked as low as nine in the world at the time of the draw and now face two huge showdowns at Twickenham with only two teams to progress to the knockout stages.
All three teams are now in the top six (Australia-2, Wales-5, England-6) with the ninth-ranked Fiji no slouches themselves, and Uruguay making up the toughest group ever assembled.
Wales last beat Australia in 2008 and while they have enjoyed plenty of success against England, a 21-16 home defeat in Cardiff on the opening night of the Six Nations in February has handed Stuart Lancaster’s side the psychological edge.
Wales did recover to win their remaining games in the tournament, including impressive victories away in France and home to champions Ireland and are hopeful of emulating their run to the last four in New Zealand.
“I thought we were playing some great stuff towards the end of the Six Nations. We felt very comfortable playing together so it’s about getting that cohesion back by the time the World Cup starts,” said captain Sam Warburton, sent off for a tip-tackle in the 9-8 semi-final defeat by France in 2011.
Warburton leads a strong pack although questions remain in the front row with coach Warren Gatland yet to decide on a first-choice hooker after surprisingly cutting Richard Hibbard from the squad.
Tighthead prop Samson Lee is battling to be fit for the tournament after undergoing surgery in March after rupturing his Achilles tendon.
Wales now appear to have a settled halfback pairing of scrumhalf Rhys Webb and flyhalf Dan Biggar, their understanding from being Ospreys team mates transferred to the international stage with Biggar making the number 10 jersey his own ahead of Rhys Priestland.
In the backline Wales were dealt a big blow after centre Jonathan Davies was ruled out of the World Cup with a knee injury, leaving Scott Williams as the number one choice to line up alongside Jamie Roberts in midfield.
There are also question marks over winger George North.
North, a key part of the Welsh backline, suffered a number of concussions last season, the third at the end of March after which he was stood down.
If he fails to recover then Gatland is likely to turn to Alex Cuthbert, who lost his place to Liam Williams during the Six Nations.
Wales kick off their World Cup campaign against Uruguay on Sept. 20 but the key battles are against England a week later and Australia on Oct. 10.
editing by Toby Davis