There has long been a suspicion that at some point during the early 1980s, the gods of rugby took David Campese under their wing. Within 13 minutes of the great Wallaby showman taking the field for his final international at Cardiff Arms Park yesterday, 44,000 Welsh spectators were presented with incontrovertible proof of divine intervention.
It was not that Campo pulled one of his customary rabbits from the Australian hat; had he done so, the home crowd might have found his umpteenth contribution to Welsh rugby's inferiority complex easier to bear. This was high cock- up rather than high class, but you need a stroke of genius to get away with it all the same.
Campese looked full of attacking intent as he sprinted off his wing to take up a threatening position in midfield following powerful thrusts from David Wilson and Michael Brial. But as the ball reached him, he committed the most transparent knock on imaginable and then compounded the error with a thoroughly illegal fumble on the floor. Inexplicably, the Scottish referee Iain Ramage missed both transgressions and allowed Tim Horan to conjure a chip through for Matt Burke to score in the left corner.
After conceding more than 220 points and 34 tries to the Wallabies in five Tests since 1991, the Welsh hardly needed to be playing the referee as well. The Australians had beaten them up hill, down dale and twice round the block since the last Red Dragon victory in 1987 - indeed, the aftermath of the embarrassing 63-6 defeat in Brisbane five years ago saw the Celts fighting amongst themselves at the after match function, which was far more than they had managed to achieve on the pitch.
There was a more legitimate fighting look to them yesterday. Despite suffering a rare old drubbing up front, Wales clung on by the last millimetre of fingernail and were just two points adrift at the end of the 80th minute before conceding a penalty try in injury time. There were no complaints at that particular Ramage decision - they dropped a five metre scrum, attempted to fiddle the ball back as the front rows collapsed and stopped George Gregan claiming the touch down in a frenzy of illicit set-piece chicanery. The fact that the crowd gave Ramage a piece of their collective mind was testament to frustration rather than anger.
But it was that sort of game, superficially exciting during the second half because of the closeness of the scoreline, yet deeply disappointing in its scrappiness and limited ambition.
Campese, given a standing ovation as he left the field, despite having spent most of the afternoon warming his hands, would have wished for a more flowing finale and he will surely attempt a trick or two from his magician's hand book when he bows out against the Barbarians at Twickenham on Saturday.
His rival romantic, Jonathan Davies, was more heavily involved but very nearly as anonymous on his return to Welsh colours. He emerged with a five-from-five kicking record but none of his shots were especially testing and given that his forwards were creamed at the line-out by David Giffin, he has little or no ball with which to work.
Who said Australia could not operate without John Eales, their injured captain? In 27-year-old Giffin they unveiled yet another supremely confident athlete who looked well capable of joining Eales in giving second-row play a 21st century sheen.
Certainly, Wales in general and Derwyn Jones in particular, did not know what to make of him. They did not like Owen Finegan or Brial much either as the sheer physical clout of the tourists back row forced penalty after penalty in dangerous positions.
It was, however, by no means a vintage Australian performance, or even an average one, come to that. Though Brial muscled his way over in the right corner for a second try on 24 minutes, to open up a 15-6 lead, the Wallabies got themselves into enough tangles of their own making to allow Davies to keep Wales in the hunt. Burke's second penalty on the stroke of half-time extended the lead to 12 points but Brial's stamp at a ruck resulted in a third successful strike by Davies four minutes into the second half.
Eight minutes later, the Welsh were back in it with a vengeance. Gregan worked a quick link with Pat Howard under the home posts but as he flicked away the scoring pass to Horan, Gareth Thomas intercepted and galloped fully 100 metres to bring his side to within two points.
Davies even had the temerity to snatch a brief lead near the hour mark, landing his fourth penalty following Finegan's less than subtle footwork on the back on Jonathan Humphreys. But the Wallabies always looked capable of digging themselves out of that shallow hole, and when Kingsley Jones swallow dived over a ruck to kill the ball 12 minutes from time, Burke did the necessary.
So the Wallabies will return home with a Triple Crown in their back pocket to go with the Grand Slam of 1984. There the comparisons end. With Campese gone and no half-back pairing worth comparing to Nick Farr-Jones and Michael Lynagh, the Australians have far to travel to recreate the glory of the great days.
Wales: Try Thomas; Conversion Davies; Penalties Davies 4. Australia: Tries Burke, Brial, penalty try. Conversions - Burke 2; Penalties Burke 3.
WALES: W Proctor (Llanelli); I Evans (Llanelli), G Thomas (Bridgend), S Gibbs (Swansea), D James (Bridgend); J Davies, R Howley (both Cardiff); C Loader (Swansea), J Humphreys (Cardiff, capt), D Young (Cardiff), G Llewellyn (Harlequins), D Jones, H Taylor (both Cardiff), S Williams (Neath), K Jones (Ebbw Vale).
Replacements: C Charbis (Swansea) for Taylor, 17; N Jenkins (Pontypridd) for Proctor, 48; C Quinnell (Richmond) for D Jones, 70.
AUSTRALIA: M Burke (NSW); J Roff (ACT), J Little (Queensland), T Horan (Queensland, capt), D Campese (NSW); P Howard, G Gregan (both ACT); D Crowley, M Foley (both Queensland), A Blades, T Gavin (NSW), D Giffin, O Finegan (both ACT), M Brial (NSW), D Wilson (Queensland).
Referee: I Ramage (Scotland).Reuse content