Wales secured a Rugby World Cup quarter-final clash against France next Sunday – but they ended their Pool D campaign with an unconvincing 35-13 victory over Uruguay.
The Six Nations champions fielded only three of their probable last-eight starting XV – wing Josh Adams, centre Hadleigh Parkes and flanker Justin Tipuric.
But that could not excuse an often laboured, error-strewn display in Kumamoto as Uruguay – shock conquerors of Fiji last month – gave Wales a real battle.
Wales led by only a point at half-time following prop Nicky Smith’s try that full-back Leigh Halfpenny converted.
Adams then claimed his fifth touchdown of the tournament, with Halfpenny again adding the extras, but Uruguay stayed in touch through two Felipe Berchesi penalties.
Unbeaten Wales finished top of their group with a best pool-phase performance since the 1987 World Cup, yet their latest success will not live long in the memory.
A 65th-minute penalty try took them further ahead, and although Berchesi converted hooker German Kessler’s touchdown, Wales added further scores in the final seven minutes from Tomos Williams and Gareth Davies, both converted by Halfpenny.
Tipuric captained a much-changed Wales team, with head coach Warren Gatland making 13 switches from the side that beat Fiji four days ago.
Some huge stats for @mastercard Player of the Match Leigh Halfpenny— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) October 13, 2019
8 points (4/4 conversions) - his biggest RWC points haul of his career
108 metres gained (more than any other player on the pitch)
15 carries (second most)#RWC2019 #StartSomethingPriceless #WALvURU pic.twitter.com/JHIRv1WMpp
It meant first starts of the tournament for players like wing Hallam Amos, hooker Ryan Elias and lock Adam Beard as Wales looked to keep their winning World Cup run going.
A minute’s silence was observed before the anthems as a show of solidarity with everyone affected by Typhoon Hagibis.
When the game started, Wales showed plenty of attacking intent, with Tipuric and wing Adams prominent.
Flanker Aaron Shingler almost went over in the corner for a try, but Uruguay were struggling to cope with mounting pressure, and Smith claimed a 17th-minute touchdown that Halfpenny converted.
Wales did not have it all their own way as Uruguay combined some strong defence with attacking ambition, and fly-half Berchesi opened their account by kicking a 22nd-minute penalty.
Wales should have scored a second try shortly afterwards when Amos breached Uruguay’s defence, but it was disallowed following a forward pass by Parkes.
It was poor play by Parkes, and Wales could not establish any rhythm to their game, leading by just four points entering the final 10 minutes of a forgettable first-half.
Uruguay ended the first 40 minutes deep inside Wales territory, and Berchesi kicked a second penalty, making it 7-6 at the break.
Wales had wasted a number of attacking opportunities, and they could have few complaints at the scoreline.
Halfpenny hit the post with a long-range penalty attempt, but Wales increased their lead after 46 minutes.
Another one ticked off. Great job @WelshRugbyUnion Onto the next one 🇫🇷💪💪🏉— Geraint Thomas (@GeraintThomas86) October 13, 2019
Sustained pressure ended with Adams claiming his fifth touchdown of the tournament, and Halfpenny’s conversion opened up an eight-point lead.
It was better from Wales, but they still found it difficult cracking a spirited and organised Uruguay team. And they were still throwing away scoring chances. Amos had a second try disallowed when he collected another Parkes forward pass, though he should have held his run with the line looming.
He then inexplicably put a third try-scoring chance down when he was put in the clear only to drop the ball as he dived for the line.
Uruguay flanker Santiago Civetta was sin-binned for a technical offence 15 minutes from time, and Wales were awarded a penalty try shortly afterwards by referee Angus Gardner.
Although Uruguay claimed a deserved touchdown from Kessler that Berchesi converted, Wales secured a bonus point when Williams darted over, with Halfpenny converting.
And Davies administered the final blow to Uruguay when left several defenders trailing in his wake on a scorching run to the line.
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Tonga captain Siale Piutau was happy to see his international career finish on a high after the 31-19 win over the United States in Hanazono.
Piutau got the third of four Tongan tries as they secured a bonus-point victory over the Eagles to secure fourth place in Pool C.
Piutau said: “We spoke all week about us deserving to play well and to finish on a high.
“This brought out the boys in the face of adversity and we’ve put in a performance and hopefully we’ve made our people proud.
“It’s an awesome way to cap off an international career. It’s my birthday today, it’s probably the best birthday present that the boys can give me. It’s been a huge honour and a privilege to represent this jersey.
“It’s been an emotional year for our family. We lost a sister early this year and it’s been a tough journey but all of this for me personally has been done in her memory.”
USA coach Gary Gold felt his side will take some positives away from the tournament.
He said: “We played some really good teams in this Rugby World Cup.
“It’s been excellent, I think after the disappointment has died down we’ll reflect and we’ll have learned a lot of lessons.”
England prop Mako Vunipola is praying for his loved ones in Tokyo as Super Typhoon Hagibis batters the Japanese capital.
The nation’s biggest hurricane for 61 years has brought devastation to vast swathes of Honshu after hitting landfall, resulting in evacuation orders, flooding and power blackouts.
England were able to escape Hagibis after their Rugby World Cup group game against France in Yokohama was cancelled, allowing them to travel to Miyazaki where they have begun preparations for the quarter-finals.
But many fans are stranded in Tokyo after jetting in to watch the match and Mako and his young brother Billy have a number of relatives who have been toughing out the 122mph winds and relentless rain accompanying the 870-mile-wide cyclone.
“We have families and friends there. That was probably the hardest thing to deal with – realising that the game wouldn’t be on and trying to make plans for them,” Vunipola said.
“My partner came over but went back before the game. My dad has just arrived and my aunties and cousins also came. My auntie has been here for the whole time.
“My dad had only come over for the France game, but I think he will stay for the Australia game.
“Japan are pretty used to typhoons and they have regulations to deal with it, so it’s just a case of them doing as they’re told and us hoping and praying that they’re safe.
To all the England fans in Tokyo...— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) October 12, 2019
A message from Ben Youngs. pic.twitter.com/BxBVZgUhld
“We’re talking to them as much as we can. It’s worrying, but we’re lucky because we’re pretty sheltered from a lot of it. I just hope the damage isn’t too much and people are OK.
“Obviously you’re focused on rugby but you know it’s not the be-all and end-all, especially when you see things like this typhoon. You worry for people’s safety.”
Vunipola was poised to make only his second appearance of the World Cup against France after making his second comeback from a hamstring injury a week ago when Argentina were toppled at Tokyo Stadium.
The Saracens prop has been limited to 38 minutes of rugby since May 11 and he admits the cancelled game has been a significant blow.
“I wanted to play as much as I can, to get a bit more game time under my belt,” Vunipola said.
“But you can’t control these things and it’s pretty serious. We as players don’t make those calls, so we’ve just got to deal with it.
“We had an idea that it might happen but I didn’t really think there was a chance the game would be cancelled. But two days before the game, we got the news.
“We’d had a tough day in training on Wednesday so I was a bit gutted because I’d worked hard.
“You want to play for your country as much as you can, but this has happened and we’re here now.
“Before we came to the World Cup, we spoke about it and said this could be a reality, and now it has happened. It’s just a case of getting ready for it, dealing with it and moving on as soon as possible.”