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Wales v Australia: Can coach Rob Howley cast aside the shadow of the Wallabies

Wales in action against Australia at the 2015 Rugby World Cup

Wales’ 15-6 defeat to Australia at the 2015 Rugby World Cup was their 11th successive defeat by the Wallabies

There’s an inescapable truth whenever talk turns to Wales versus Australia at rugby.

It is the large marsupial in the room – much bigger than a wallaby – that casts a shadow over previews and preparations for the big match.

In this instance it is perfectly illustrated by the appearance of Reece Hodge at Australia’s team hotel in Cardiff.

Fresh-faced and newly ensconced in the Wallaby midfield at the age of 22, he is respectful and confident in the face of a modest gathering of Australian and Welsh media.

Hodge was just 14 years old the last time Wales beat Australia.

In the eight years since that 21-18 win in Cardiff, Wales have tried and failed 11 times to beat the Wallabies.

Sometimes self-inflicted, sometimes beyond comprehension but always bitterly disappointing. It’s a run of results that blots the record of a country that has been crowned champions of Europe three times in the same period.

Against that background, Rob Howley takes Wales into an autumn series which also sees Argentina, Japan and South Africa come to Cardiff.

Does it play on Welsh minds?

The party line from both camps is that the past is an irrelevance; a concern for fans not coaches; no more than a discussion point over a pint.

Sam Warburton is one of three British and Irish Lions – along with Taulupe Faletau and Alun Wyn Jones – whose absence makes Howley’s task even harder on Saturday. And a win against Australia is still high on his to-do list.

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Sam Warburton and Alun Wyn Jones will miss the Test against Australia due to different reasons

“I haven’t beaten them in a Welsh shirt,” he said. “It’s a gap on my cv that I’d like to put right.”

Howley himself, when announcing his team to take on Michael Cheika’s men, was reminded by reporters about the most recent of those 11 defeats – the 15-6 loss at Twickenham in the 2015 World Cup.

It was the game when the Wallabies were reduced to 13 men for seven nerve-shredding minutes and still Wales couldn’t cross the line.

Well, they crossed the line, but couldn’t ground the ball.

“I’ve mentioned about having sleepless nights after the last Rugby World Cup,” he recalled.

“To get over the line three times and not get the ball down was really frustrating.

“I suppose the big focus for us is having composure and being clinical particularly when we get into those attacking areas like we did 12 months ago.”

Gain from pain

So the losing run hurts, and Howley is hoping to use the lessons of the three matches against New Zealand in the summer to put things right.

It is an extraordinary fact that the 14-point losing margin in Wales’ 36-22 defeat in Wellington was the closest anyone got to the All Blacks during the northern hemisphere summer of 2016.

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Rewind: Wales 12-14 Australia – extended highlights

Wales adopted a quicker, counter-attacking game during that tour and the All Blacks’ influence has been absorbed during Welsh preparations for the Wallabies.

“New Zealand was a huge learning curve,” he said.

“We’re running less distances and making sure the high speed metres are quicker and sharper – and that’s a challenge against southern hemisphere sides.

“We have changed and we’ve worked on a lot of skills in training – front five skills.

“That’s a big point of difference compared with New Zealand . . . they are setting the standards.”

A long job interview?

There is another dynamic at play here.

Howley, 46, is deputising for coach Gatland, who is taking charge of the 2017 Lions tour to New Zealand.

Ex-Wales and Lions captain Gareth Thomas says the former scrum-half should eventually be Gatland’s permanent replacement.

Victories this autumn against the Wallabies and the Springboks might make a compelling case on his behalf.

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Reece Hodge started as a full-back but plays inside centre for the Wallabies

At the other end of the experience scale Reece Hodge has his own chance to impress.

He is 13 years younger than Wales captain Gethin Jenkins and with six caps has made 120 fewer appearances for his country.

After facing the All Blacks in Auckland last time out he is not intimidated by the prospect of the Principality Stadium atmosphere or facing the partnership of Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies.

“They say the atmosphere is pretty intense, but everybody enjoys playing there is what I’ve heard so I’m looking forward to the challenge this weekend,” he said.

“I’ll relish the challenge – they’re obviously a world class centre pairing and they’ve caused havoc for defences. But I’ll enjoy the challenge and embrace it.”

The fervent hope of the majority of that famous crowd – and of Howley – is that Hodge will not celebrate his 30th birthday before Wales beat the Wallabies again.