Australia's iron defence denies Wales bronze

Australia 21 Wales 18

If it is understandable that a team should produce their shabbiest performance of a tournament in the game they are least interested in contesting, there is no logic at all in waiting until the fifth minute of stoppage time to produce the kind of rugby that would have won them the match and earned them a medal, albeit one of the bronze variety.

When Wales finally found a way of melting down the iron Australian defence in yesterday's World Cup play-off for third place, there was no possibility of them doing it again. The clock made sure of that.

Leigh Halfpenny's memorable late score down the left had many causes, one of which was Wallaby carnage: Scott Higginbotham, the bustling blind-side flanker who made such an impact for the Super 15-winning Queensland Reds a few weeks before this World Cup, could barely walk, let alone run, but there was no one left to replace him. Yet there was also something electrifyingly Welsh about it, and the switch was flicked by the kids: the 19-year-old wing George North, the 21-year-old centre Scott Williams and the similarly aged scrum-half Lloyd Williams. Wales may travel home wondering what might have been, but they have no need to wonder about what they have in front of them.

There was also something to savour from a Williams at the other end of the age spectrum: little Shane, the darling of the valleys, who marked his last World Cup outing with the kind of opportunist score that has come to define his career. Yes, Mike Phillips was a little lucky to find James Hook with a push-kick from a pilfered Australian ruck; yes, Hook's pass to Williams was a good metre forward. But to see the Ospreys wing stick out his leg and control the ball like Rivelino before wrong-footing the remnants of the cover was a joy.

They came up short, even so. The previous Welsh defeats, against South Africa in the opening pool match and France in the semi-final, had been by a single point: to lose a third game by just three was frustrating in the extreme. Warren Gatland, the head coach, acknowledged afterwards that with margins as small as these, inaccurate goal-kicking had to be at the heart of matters. Certainly, he did not sound pleased with James Hook, who had another rough night in all sorts of ways.

How Wales have missed Rhys Priestland over the last fortnight. Had the Scarlets outside-half not suffered a shoulder injury late in the quarter-final victory over Ireland, the Red Dragons' campaign might have ended very differently. By asking the less dependable Hook to shoulder the No 10 duties, Gatland knew he was taking a risk.

A risk too far? It seemed that way, both in the game against France and again yesterday. The longer the Perpignan-bound midfielder occupied the stand-off position, the better an outside centre he appeared to be.

Not that Gatland blamed Hook for the defeat. "It didn't help when he missed that penalty in front of the posts," he acknowledged, referring to a fluffed goal-kick shortly after the restart that would have given Wales the encouragement they needed after an error-riddled opening period, "but we weren't quite up for the game emotionally as we had been for the other matches and it showed. There again, we've played one of the best sides in the world, a team with one of the best defences in the tournament, and scored two tries. The Springboks didn't manage to score any against them, the All Blacks only one. We're disappointed, but we'll take an awful lot of positives with us when we leave for home."

It was a hard, attritional match: the Wallabies lost Quade Cooper, their much talked-about outside-half, to a suspected rupture of the cruciate ligament in his right knee – a nine-month job, in all probability – and Kurtley Beale to a recurrence of his hamstring injury. Nathan Sharpe was also crocked early, but the splendid lock from Wagga Wagga was in no mood to end his 100th Test appearance at so premature a stage. Somehow, he lasted until the 46th minute.

Fortunately for the former champions, they had fresh players in good form in important areas, most notably Berrick Barnes, who picked a beautiful line on Cooper to claim the opening try 11 minutes in, made an excellent fist of the pivot position after his colleague hobbled off and dropped a very decent goal for good measure.

Yet if the Wallabies looked likely winners from the moment Barnes delivered his initial thrust, it was not until the busy No 8 Ben McCalman crossed from close range in the final minute of normal time that they nailed down their victory. That said much for Wales' ability to hang in against a major power despite being off their level. It is not all bad.

Australia: Tries Barnes, McCalman; Conversion O'Connor; Penalties O'Connor 2; Drop goal Barnes.

Wales :Tries Shane Williams, Halfpenny; Conversion S Jones; Penalties Hook, S Jones.

Australia: K Beale (R Horne, 9); J O'Connor, A Ashley-Cooper, B Barnes, D Ioane; Q Cooper (A Fainga'a, 23), W Genia (L Burgess, 71); J Slipper, T Polota-Nau (S Fainga'a, 53), S Ma'afu (B Alexander, 62), J Horwill (capt, R Samo, 74), N Sharpe (R Simmons, 45), S Higginbotham (Samo, 33-37), D Pocock, B McCalman.

Wales: L Halfpenny; G North (S Jones, 36-40), J Davies (Scott Williams, 73), J Roberts, Shane Williams; J Hook (S Jones, 51), M Phillips (L Williams, 66); G Jenkins (capt), H Bennett (L Burns, 73), P James (R Bevington, 66), L Charteris (A W Jones, 55), B Davies, D Lydiate (A Powell, 66), T Faletau, R Jones.

Referee: W Barnes (England).