Wales v USA
Glyndwr University Racecourse Stadium, Wrexham
Sunday 2pm (UK time)
Monday 1am (AEDT), 12am (AEST)
One team will take a huge leap towards snatching a quarter-finals berth in this match between one of the World Cup hosts and one of the tournament's surprise success stories so far. History and home ground advantage is on Wales' side but the United States can't be written off after their fast-finishing win over the Cook Islands this week.
Wales succumbed to a star-studded Italy outfit on the opening day of the World Cup in Cardiff, conceding the final four tries of the game after both sides had crossed twice in the first half. That defeat would have stung in front of their home fans and now their tournament could be effectively ended with a defeat against the Americans, with just one team to advance from Group D to the quarter-final stages.
In fact, after the USA's surprise triumph over the Cook Islands, this looms as the crucial match from Group D. The Tomahawks are in fine form after shocking France in their warm-up match ahead of the Cook Islands victory, and will be almost certain to advance to the quarter-finals if they can make it three wins in as many weeks. Wales meanwhile still have the chance to top the group if they defeat the Americans here and the Cook Islands next week.
Watch Out Wales: Rising Parramatta Eels star Joseph Paulo was inspirational for the Americans against the Cook Islands, with the ball-playing big man setting up three tries and scoring another himself from his own charge down. Paulo also controlled the Tomahawks' kicking game and put in plenty of defensive work with 18 tackles. The team's captain and goal-kicker is as crucial to his own team as any single player is to any nation at this tournament.
Wales will also need to contain and impressive front-row pairing in the form of Mark Offerdahl – a Manly junior now plying his trade in France – and Wigan-bound West Tiger Eddy Pettybourne, who both notched some great numbers against the Cook Islands. Offerdahl made 19 hit-ups for 146 metres plus 28 tackles, seven tackle-breaks and a try, while Pettybourne made 131 metres from 17 carries to go with 28 tackles. If the Americans can win the battle of the big men they'll give Paulo a great chance to wreak some havoc.
Watch Out USA: Bradford Bulls winger Elliot Kear was one of the standouts for Wales against Italy, breaking clear on the right flank to set up one try and out-leaping his rival winger to bring down a bomb and score another. He also made the most runs of any Welsh player, with 15 – including eight darts from dummy-half. Expect to see the Welsh halves (who both set up tries with kicks against Italy) to send the ball towards Kear's wing whenever possible.
Twin brothers Ben and Rhys Evans also impressed in a losing side – with back-rower Ben leading the defensive effort with 47 tackles while Rhys provided four tackle-breaks and a line-break assist from fullback. The Warrington Wolves pair will need to play a key part again if Wales are to keep their playoff hopes alive.
Where It Will Be Won: Fitness. These are two evenly matched teams, with Paulo and fellow NRL players Pettybourne, Clint Newton and Joel Luani possibly giving the Americans the edge in talent, but that's balanced out by the fact the Welsh are playing in front of a home crowd. The factor that really gives Wales the edge is the schedule – Wales will have had eight days to recover from last weekend's game when this match kicks off, while the Tomahawks will need to bounce back from their midweek match in Bristol. Do they have the fitness to match it with their fresher rivals?
Televised: 7mate – Live from 12.30am (NSW); 11.30pm Sunday (Qld).
The Way We See It: Form is certainly on the Americans' side but home ground advantage and a full weeks' rest should give Wales the edge here. If Paulo fires again the Tomahawks could spring yet another upset, but we'll predict a tight Welsh win. Wales by four points.
*Statistics: NRL Stats