Wales clung on to a 29-25 victory over Australia as the key clash in Pool D of the Rugby World Cup put the Dragons in the driving seat for a top spot and a more favourable quarter-final.
Just like the opening encounter between two of the big hitters, Wales v Australia delivered every bit as much as New Zealand and South Africa – even more so. Warren Gatland’s Six Nations Grand Slam champions were excellent in the first half, despite losing Dan Biggar who failed a head injury assessment.
Replacement Rhys Patchell kicked three penalties, a drop goal and a conversion, while Hadleigh Parkes and Gareth Davies tries gave them a healthy 23-8 interval lead.
But waves of Wallaby attacks littered the second half, Dane Haylett-Petty and Michale Hooper tries adding to Adam Ashley-Cooper crossing in the first half. But Wales, with skipper Alun Wyn Jones breaking the nation’s caps record as he earned his 130th, held on and now hold the key to top spot and a likely last eight clash with either Argentina or France.
Living up to the billing: The second seismic showdown in the pool stages and – just like the All Blacks and Springboks – this didn’t disappoint. The two powerhouses thundered into each other from the first whistle, trading blows like two punch drunk boxers in their final fight.
Wales started ferociously and drew first blood. But once the green and gold got going this tussle turned into a tantalising Test match, with neither side giving an inch.
There were bruising hits aplenty while tactics seemed to go out of the window early as adrenaline and pride led to a wide open contest.
Wallaby warriors: Despite a flawless first half from Wales, a 15-point advantage – later 18 – against a side boasting big burly ball carriers and with a deep bench always seemed precarious. A try six minutes into the second half from replacement fly-half Matt Toomua set the tone.
After that it was an onslaught as a combination of indiscipline and exhaustion left the Dragons scaling a tall wall to hold on to their advantage.
Skipper Hooper was also at the fulcrum of everything as gatekeeper Toomua had two master keys in Samu Kerevi and Marika Koroibete.
Against a less renowned and diligent defence, the comeback would surely have been completed.
Wallaby wobbles: The Welsh were the best side in the first half but they were simply surgical in their conversion. Michael Cheika’s men were in the game but were stupendously sloppy, dropping the ball times and time again – they gave away 17 turnovers to Wales’ nine throughout the 80 minutes.
And while the rustiness had certainly been shaken off after a rude awakening against Fiji, a more ruthless performance would almost certainly have provided the platform for victory.
They certainly would have been closer to Wales at the break. Will Genia (106) is the seventh-most capped Aussie ever, and yet his loose pass that Gareth Davies gobbled up would have left a rookie red-faced.
Anonymous attack: They might have had the best ball carrier in their ranks – scrum-half Davies led runners with 112 metres made – but Australia’s awesome second half response rendered the Welsh attack blunt as they spent the majority of the second 40 minutes struggling to find a foothold.
The Dragons had displayed a dynamic cutting edge in their opening win over Georgia, but the firepower of Liam Williams, George North and Josh Adams was drenched by a second half deluge of gold and green, as Australia reigned.
Referee calls: There was again cause for frustration in certain areas, like the breakdown, but ultimately, Roman Poite controlled the game brilliantly when it came to the big calls. Twice he kept calm and just awarded penalties against Hooper and Kerevi when another could easily have shown yellow for a late tackle and leading with the forearm.
He did the same again for Australia early in the second when Adams’ tackle was adjudged to be high.
Officials have come in for plenty of criticism in this tournament – from the game’s own governing body no less – so this was a triumph for the man in the middle.
3rd min DROP GOAL: Statement start from the men in red as they pile in to the green and gold shirts from kick-off. Biggar is in space to pierce the scoreboard inside three minutes.
12th min TRY: Wales strike while the iron is hot. They hammer away at the Wallaby defence before Biggar punts for the corner, Parkes – playing with a fractured hand – out-jumps Koroibete and touches down.
16th min FLASHPOINT: The advantage is lost for Wales but referee Poite brings it back following a late hit from Hooper on Biggar. Consulting the TMO, the Frenchman orders a penalty for Wales, but there’s no card for the Aussie flanker.
21st min TRY: Australia back in it and it’s from their first real attack. After Kerevi makes inroads, Foley’s immaculate crossfield kick finds Ashley-Cooper who scrambles over.
28th min INJURY: Biggar stops Kerevi from scoring a certain try with a tackle that forces a knock-on, but it comes at a personal cost as he leaves the field for a HIA. He’s done for the day.
29th min PENALTY: George North goes off his feet at a ruck and after a promising advantage is thwarted, Foley makes it 10-8.
33rd min PENALTY: Hooper’s hands are in the ruck and Biggar’s replacement Patchell slots it through. 13-8.
37th min PENALTY: Kerevi is on the charge but is penalised for leading with the forearm on Patchell, who after consultation kicks another penalty. 16-8.
38th min PENALTY: From the restart Genia somehow doesn’t see Davies creeping up and the pass is picked off, Davies steams past Foley and to the line for a breathtaking try. Patchell knocks over the extras, 23-8.
44th min DROP GOAL: Wales begin the second half brightly, driving deep into Australia’s half. They try to set up the drop goal and Patchell pops it over. 26-8.
46th min TRY: Brilliant response from the Wallabies, Toomua drives into Welsh territory and even though he’s halted, Haylett-Petty is over a few phases later. Toomua converts, 26-15.
62nd min TRY: A significant period of pressure from the Wallabies – including three penalty advantages – ended with a try from captain Hooper. The Aussies have begun to turn the screw and they’re rewarded. Toomua’s conversion makes it 26-22.
68th min PENALTY: Wallabies well on top and Toomua knocks over to make it a one-point game.
72nd min PENALTY: Wallabies are offside and Patchell gives Wales a little breathing room.
Started slowly and paid the price as the Dragons danced into a 18-point lead. Their second half performance was night and day as they roared back and looked the more likely winner. Only a catalogue of errors and Wales’ formidable red wall of defence prevented victory.
Could have been considered out of sight at the break, but a game is never won against one of the game’s elite – despite Australia’s travails in recent years. The Dragons fired and fed off chances that fell to them in the first half, but they were fading and fatigued towards the end, and needed all their reserves to hold on.
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