Wales kick off what should be another dramatic weekend at Rugby World Cup 2021 when they take on Australia in the first game of the final round of pool matches at the Northland Events Centre in Whangārei this Saturday.
Ioan Cunningham’s team go into their pivotal match against Australia in a position to qualify for the quarter-finals as one of the two best third-place teams. But a victory over Australia guarantees them a place in the knockout stages as runners-up in Pool A behind the Black Ferns.
Wales won their opening match against Scotland, 18-15, thanks to a last-gasp penalty from Keira Bevan, but suffered a 56-12 defeat to New Zealand last time out.
Australia currently sit in second place having also won one and lost one of their two games to date.
In the first, they surrendered an early 17-0 lead to lose 41-17 to New Zealand, while the second game was the exact opposite with the Wallaroos coming from 12-0 down to beat Scotland 14-12.
Taking the game to Australia
Attack coach Richard Whiffen believes that if Wales can take the positives out of each of their first two matches and put together a more rounded performance, they can beat the Wallaroos for the first time in history and ensure their destiny is in their own hands.
“We’re looking at it as a winnable game. Scotland pushed them really hard but then also you see how they started against the Black Ferns in the first game. They certainly have a lot of threats but looking at it from my side of the ball, there are opportunities for us to really take the game to them and almost try and have a mixture of the two performances,” he said.
“Whereas against Scotland, we challenged them with the ball, against New Zealand we challenged them upfront. If we can get more of a balance of those two there will certainly be enough opportunities for us to go out there and win the game.
“Ultimately, for us, that’s all we are focusing on. Points difference and all sorts of things like that can come into it but with us playing the first game of the whole weekend, it is something we can’t control so we have got to go out there and try and win the game and almost take it out of anyone else’s hands.
“The goal for us coming into the tournament was to get out of the pool stage and we’ve still given ourselves a chance to do that,” he added.
“All of our thoughts and efforts will be towards putting in our best performance so far against Australia and, hopefully, that will be enough to get us through to the quarters and stay another week.”
Looking for a cutting edge
One improvement Wales made from one game to the next was the number of penalties they conceded – down from 18 against Scotland to eight the following week.
However, converting promising attacking opportunities into points is an area that Whiffin still believes is a key work-on.
“We were pleased with how we got into the 22, we had eight clear-cut opportunities five metres out (against New Zealand) but our finishing and execution wasn’t at the level it needed to be,” he said.
“To use golfing terminology, we drove the ball really well but we just couldn’t finish the puts.
“We went out there trying to really put the pressure on the Kiwis with our forward pack and they certainly did that and fronted up.
“But the big thing we need to work on is polishing up our execution, especially in the top end of the field. We left points out there, similar to the Scotland game.
“Ultimately, the key thing for us is sharpening the sword a little bit and getting over the whitewash a bit more.”
A new crusade
Once Wales’ tournament is over, Whiffin will return to the UK for a short family break before heading back to New Zealand to start up his new position as attack coach of the Highlanders.
The Highlanders finished as the lowest-placed Kiwi team in the last Super Rugby season and have turned to Whiffin as a fresh source of inspiration.
“The Kiwi guys over here say I am the first Englishman; the Crusaders had Mark Jones and ROG (Ronan O’Gara), obviously, in the last couple of years. It is a massive opportunity and one I am very excited about,” he said.
“Maybe the Kiwis are starting to realise they need a little bit more northern hemisphere influence.
“I know they send their coaches out (to Europe) and bring them back but Derms (Clarke Dermody), the head coach, said the rationale around going for me was that I had something a little bit different to what they’d been used to.
“I can’t wait to get into it. This is one opportunity I said yes to straight away,” he added.
"Super Rugby has always been a huge part of my rugby education, from watching on TV as a child to studying the competition as a coach.”