Wales crashed to their seventh successive Test loss yesterday, but in the process revitalised the Principality's hopes of avoiding embarrassment at this year's World Cup. With the game in Wales rebuilding itself from the feet up, many fans felt yesterday's Test against the world champions in Sydney would be a bridge too far, and feared a 50-point hiding that would confirm the country's lowly ranking.
But Steve Hansen's men gave Australia a bit of a scare, although there are no trophies for winning the possession and territorial battles. The cold, hard facts of the match will show that Australia scored five tries, Wales one, and until Hansen can find a player to break through the world's best defences, his run of seven straight losses looks destined to move into double figures.
"I thought the first-half performance, even though the scoreboard read 18-3, was very, very good," an upbeat Hansen said after the match. "We turned over some soft tries, which really hurt us, but I was pleased with the composure of the boys to come back into it. They never gave up, and we were probably unfortunate not to score a couple more tries."
The Wales captain, Martyn Williams - who produced a typically courageous performance against overwhelming odds - was a frustrated man afterwards.
"We gave it our best shot," he said. "But the feeling is more frustration and disappointment. I think there's been big scalps there for the taking, but we haven't quite got there. We're disappointed, but we just have to keep on going. The reality is we're not as good as Australia and New Zealand if everyone plays to their ability."
He added: "They had the power up front, but credit to our guys, they handled it well, it was a good performance. I think we showed a few people we can play a bit. We've got some good young players - things are looking good. We have a young side and we're building, and there are others left at home who couldn't make this trip. But we'll be ready when the World Cup starts."
Williams's Wallaby counter-part, George Gregan, a veteran of 84 Tests, said the Welsh had been tough competitors, and admitted that the home side "had a few things to work on" before facing the all-conquering England team next weekend. "There is a need to improve on all aspects of our game," he said.
The luck that has eluded Wales all season stayed away in Sydney. A promising opening salvo from the men in red was stopped on the Australian try-line, only for the ball to pop out of a ruck, be picked up by former league star Wendell Sailor and dotted down over the try-line 100 yards in the distance. His foot looked to have crossed the touchline at the start of his run, but South African referee Mark Lawrence signalled play on.
A clever Chris Latham kick gave Sailor a double after 10 minutes, and Wallaby fans settled back into their armchairs, opened another can of Foster's and waited for the other 70 points.
To Wales's great credit, they never appeared. Despite a clear lack of finishing power, with the likes of Kevin Morgan, Iestyn Harris and Gareth Thomas back home, they gave the World Cup holders several scares for the rest of the half.
Again, though, luck was on the Wallabies' side when Wales's makeshift winger Tom Shanklin stumbled in defence and full-back Latham went over the line untouched to give his side an 18-3 lead at the break.
Wales centre Jamie Robinson, who scored against the All Blacks in the autumn, finished off a well-worked move to narrow the gap to eight points, but the Welsh side's lack of penetration at crucial times was proving costly. Impressive hooker Jeremy Paul extended the home side's lead ,and a late try from replacement centre Nathan Grey gave them a 20-point victory.
In one way, luck was with the Welsh - the home side's fly-half, Elton Flatley, missed five shots at goal and winger Joe Roff, called in to replace him, hit an upright from virtually in front. Maybe the tide is turning in Wales's favour.
Australia 30 Wales 10
Tries: Sailor 2, Latham, Try: Robinson
Con: Roff Con: S Jones
Pen: Flatley Pen: S Jones
Half-time: 18-3 Attendance: 68,688
Australia: C Latham (Queensland); W Sailor (Queensland), M Turinui (NSW), S Kefu (Queensland), J Roff (ACT); E Flatley (Queensland), G Gregan (ACT, capt); B Young (ACT), J Paul (ACT), P Noriega (NSW), N Sharpe (Queensland), D Giffin (ACT), D Lyons (NSW), P Waugh (NSW), T Queensland). Replacements: B Darwin (ACT) for Noriega, 54; D Vickerman (ACT) for Giffin, 61; B Cannon (NSW) for Paul, 65; N Grey (NSW) for for S Kefu, 65; D Heenan (Queensland) for Lyons, 67; L Tuqiri (NSW) for Roff, 71; C Whitaker (NSW) for Gregan, 72.
Wales: R Williams (Cardiff); M Jones (Llanelli), J Robinson (Cardiff), M Taylor (Swansea), T Shanklin (Saracens); S Jones (Llanelli), G Cooper (Bath); I Thomas (Llanelli), R McBryde (Llanelli), G Jenkins (Pontypridd), G Llewellyn (Neath), R Sidoli (Pontypridd), J Thomas (Swansea), C Charvis (Swansea), M Williams (Cardiff, capt). Replacements: C Wyatt (Llanelli) for Llewellyn, 68; M Davies (Pontypridd) for McBryde, 69; A Popham (Leeds) for J Thomas, 75.
Referee: M Lawrence (South Africa).
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