Warren Gatland faces biggest test of his career and his immediate priority is now clear

-Credit: (Image: Huw Evans Picture Agency Ltd)
-Credit: (Image: Huw Evans Picture Agency Ltd)

Warren Gatland has overcome many hurdles in his career but turning around the fortunes of this Wales side is arguably his biggest challenge.

Gatland has coached in some huge Test matches, including two Rugby World Cup semi-finals, Six Nations Grand Slam deciders and on four British & Irish Lions tours, but he had the quality of player required to succeed. This time it is different, with a dearth of experienced Test players at his disposal, while the struggles of Wales' four professional sides - Cardiff, Dragons, Ospreys and Scarlets - will make it doubly difficult for Gatland to turn things around.

But Gatland has never shied away from the fact international rugby is a results-led business and currently Wales are in the midst of their worst run of defeats since the 2012-13 season, with eight Test losses on the bounce. In the long run real sustained success at international level will only be achieved with a whole-game solution which involves strong professional teams underpinning the national side, but even so Gatland is under pressure from the Welsh public to start delivering wins.

SIGN UP: Get the new exclusive Inside Welsh rugby newsletter for full insight into what's really going on around all the big issues. This special offer will get you full access for the entire year for just £10 instead of £40.

Will Wales break their losing run in Melbourne this weekend? Well, it's not mission impossible but they are firm underdogs.

One of the key ingredients behind Wales' successes during the first Gatland era was the consistency of selection. Wales had a settled side and it was harder to get into the side than out of it, while each player had a telepathic understanding of the game plan.

There has been a scattergun nature to selection of late, which is mainly down to injuries and a lack of experience within the playing group. But Gatland has only made two changes to his starting XV for the second Test against the Wallabies, with Cameron Winnett starting at full-back and James Botham replacing the injured Aaron Wainwright in the backrow.

Wales must build on the positive aspects of their performance in Sydney but the set-piece is the one area of the game where they must improve significantly to have any chance of coming out on top. If Wales had a functioning set-piece last weekend they may well have won the game.

They came under severe pressure in the scrum during the first half with the most experienced prop in world rugby James Slipper and destructive tighthead Taniela Tupou giving Wales a torrid time. Things did improve for Wales after Slipper and Tupou had left the field injured but both have been cleared to start for Australia this weekend.

Former All Blacks scrum guru Mike Cronn, who is now a member of Joe Schmidt's backroom team with the Wallabies, will undoubtedly want Australia to go after Wales in this area of the game. Wales struggled to cope with Australia's one-up ball carriers last weekend so the Wallabies will probably see the scrum as a weapon which can not only yield field position but points.

Wales need to be accurate to limit the number of scrums but they also need to find a way of gaining parity in this area. Wainwright dug Wales out of a fair few holes last week with his carrying off the base of a retreating scrum, so there will be a big onus on Taine Plumtree to do similar on Saturday.

But an even bigger issue is the lineout which only operated at 76% last weekend - not good enough if Wales want to turn narrow defeats into victories. "We have done a lot of work on it this week," said Gatland in this week's press conference.

"We had a couple on underthrows and they have had one pretty good steal as well. You want those numbers in the high 80s and early 90s in terms of success. We had 16 lineouts on the weekend.

"It is definitely an important starter point to get a good platform to work off. Our lineout functioning is pretty important for us."

What must be frustrating Gatland and forwards coach Jonathan Humphreys is the fact the maul is such a potent weapon for this side when they manage to win the ball. Wales have been awarded three penalty tries so far in 2024 courtesy of their driving lineout, while they were unlucky to have a try chalked off in Sydney after their maul had splintered Australia's defence.

If they can shore up the lineout then they have the means to leave Australia's 22 with more points than they did last weekend.

Wales' kicking game will also need to be far better in Melbourne because they kicked too loosely at time in the first Test.

There were a couple of wonderful 50/22s from Liam Williams and Ellis Bevan but also a couple which went out on the full. Josh Hathaway's wayward kick in the final quarter last weekend resulted in outstanding Wallabies full-back Tom Wright running in the decisive try.

It's easier said than done but Wales need to find a way of getting the best out of Mason Grady who should be a big weapon in attack. The midfield combination of Watkin and Grady has not worked as of yet from an offensive standpoint, while there was also too much separation in defence at times in Sydney, but if Wales are to level the series they need to be far more clinical.

Throughout the Six Nations and against Australia Wales succeeded at building pressure in the opposition 22 but they don't come away with enough points. What is exciting for Wales is the second-row combination of Christ Tshiunza and Dafydd Jenkins.

Tshiunza had his best game for Wales last weekend and even though he wasn't perfect the positives far outweighed the negatives. The 22-year-old is a real physical specimen who can carry, win lineouts and compete at the breakdown, while Jenkins is a real workhorse.

That partnership has real potential and should be even better this time around. While the loss of Wainwright is a seismic one, Wales still have a backrow which can trouble Australia.

Plumtree is still raw but has a high ceiling and is capable of making an impact, but playing Botham and Tommy Reffell in the same backrow enhances Wales' jackal threat at the breakdown. Botham is a fine player who would have won more caps for Wales by now if it wasn't for injury.

The Cardiff man brings a real physical presence and could really complement Reffell, who can be a real menace at the breakdown. It's not beyond Wales to level the series in 48 hours but they will need to up their game significantly.

Gatland's main goal is to ensure Wales can compete in the latter stages of the 2027 World Cup but victories are needed imminently to prove they are on an upward trajectory under his leadership.