TOKYO (Reuters) - The Rugby World Cup will get its first taste of inter-hemisphere heavyweight rivalry when Wales and Australia clash on Sunday in a match that is likely to decide who tops Pool D.
Southern hemisphere teams locked up the four semi-final spots at the last World Cup and the contest at Tokyo Stadium will provide a first hint as to whether the north has closed the gap since.
On form, Australia are the weakest of the three World Cup-winning nations from the south but they were losing finalists four years ago in England and hammered the All Blacks 47-26 as recently as last month.
Wales won the Six Nations with a Grand Slam earlier this year during a 14-match winning streak and dislodged New Zealand from the top of the world rankings for the first time in a decade last month.
Both sides won their opening matches of the tournament and while Wales edged the last meeting between the two teams, Australia won the previous 13 - including victories at the last two World Cups.
The 15-6 Wallabies win at Twickenham in 2015 was built on a heroic defensive effort and they will probably need to produce something similar to stop the remorseless red machine.
“Obviously the quality of Warren Gatland and his coaching team is second to none so we expect them to be extremely well drilled and we know it’s going to be a big challenge,” coach Michael Cheika said on Friday.
“We know they’re favourite to win but we’ll just go out there and do our best.”
Cheika dropped a couple of selection bombshells on Friday when he dumped the halfbacks who fired the Perth victory over the All Blacks and brought back the more conservative pairing of Will Genia and Bernard Foley.
With Kurtley Beale replaced at fullback by Dane Haylett-Petty to deal with the expected aerial bombardment from the Welsh, it looked to Gatland like a team selected to nullify the opposition.
“I just think it’s a sign of respect, and that as a team is sign of how far we’ve come over a number years, that teams are looking at you,” said Gatland.
“I don’t always think that was the case with Wales. They wouldn’t consider us to have an attacking threat, or any threats at all.”
Gatland went with a starting side unchanged from that which beat Georgia in their opening match, resisting the temptation to tinker with his back row in an attempt to counter the threat of Australia flankers David Pocock and Michael Hooper.
“We did a good job last year on Hooper,” Gatland added.
“Pocock was a different story. He ... got five turnovers. So he’s big threat for us and someone we need to make sure we focus on.”
Wales will be captained by 34-year-old Alun Wyn Jones in his record 130th test for his country, while Australia have 35-year-old Adam Ashley-Cooper on the right wing in his 120th.
Ashley-Cooper came in to replace Reece Hodge, who was banned for three matches for a dangerous tackle during Australia’s opening win over Fiji last weekend.
That decision dominated Cheika’s new conference on Friday, while Wales appear to have moved on from assistant coach Rob Howley being sent home to face an investigation into allegations he breached rules over gambling.
Reporting by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Toby Davis