Despite the best efforts of the English, who have been laying in the gutter and staring into the sewer for a long time now, the union game's special spirit is still alive. When Shane Williams broke down in tears as "Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau" rang out ahead of his 87th and final appearance for his country, Ryan Jones ruffled his hair affectionately in what may have been the warmest act seen on a rugby field since the dawning of professionalism. And when Williams scored a wildly popular try at the last knockings, how did the brilliant Wallaby back James O'Connor react? With a smile and a congratulatory pat on the chest.
"I did look up at the scoreboard first, just to make sure the game was over and we'd won," O'Connor joked afterwards. "Seriously, I've been up against him a few times since I started playing Test rugby and he's always been a top bloke, on and off the field." Did that mean there was no thought of giving Williams a late smack, as punishment for his temerity in unlocking an exceptional Wallaby defence? O'Connor laughed loud and long. Not a chance. Had he so much as knocked his opponent off balance, he would have been flung in the Tower.
The tourists did not quite go the whole hog in entering into the spirit of things: no side willing to rip up the Barbarians to the dissonant tune of 60 points, as they had done in their previous outing, could be considered entirely generous and here in the Welsh capital they were not prepared even to grant Williams the honour of being the better of the two left wings on view. Digby Ioane, the New Zealand-born Queenslander, snaffled that little accolade without thinking twice. He really is some player at the moment – a player worth watching any day of the week.
But is there truly a desire to watch Ioane or O'Connor – or, indeed, the accomplished Adam Ashley-Cooper or the deeply resourceful Will Genia or the exceptional David Pocock – quite so often? The fact that the Millennium Stadium audience was some considerable way short of capacity, despite the presence of almost 2,000 choristers from every far-flung corner of the country, told a tale. The public appetite for international rugby was well and truly satisfied by the World Cup, which, lest we forget, was still in progress as recently as late October: indeed, the penultimate fixture was between these two self-same countries. Had Oliver Twist been a follower of the 15-man game, he might have been overheard saying: "More? After that lot? What are you trying to do – kill me?"
Wales will be sick of the sight of the Wallabies by summer, for the teams are scheduled to play three further matches in June. Does it make sense for Jamie Roberts, the Cardiff Blues centre, to spend more of his time tackling Berrick Barnes from Brisbane than he devotes to brushing his teeth or talking to his family? Hardly. And quite what the Blues themselves make of the ever-expanding international programme is anyone's guess. Having donated seven players – half a team, as near as dammit – to the Welsh starting line-up and an eighth man to the bench, they trucked over to Dublin last Friday night for what should have been a significant league game against the reigning European champions Leinster and conceded 50 points. They must be well chuffed.
It is no mean feat to leave the paying public feeling force-fed and short-changed simultaneously, but by allowing individual unions to stage Test matches, pure money-makers for the most part, outside the agreed windows, the International Rugby Board has shown itself to be either powerless in the face of financial arguments presented by its membership or deeply Machiavellian in its willingness to see northern hemisphere club rugby undermined at every available opportunity. Quite possibly, it is both.
Generally speaking, Welsh chances of victory at Test level are undermined whenever they take the field without Adam Jones on the tight-head side of the scrum. The Ospreys forward was injured early in the World Cup semi-final against France – a match Wales would surely have won had he made a full contribution – and has yet to return, hence the promotion of the Blues prop Scott Andrews for this game. Andrews finished a distant second to James Slipper, the improving loose-head specialist from the Gold Coast, and without the set-piece domination so important to any side's prospects of cramping the Wallabies' style in open field, it was no surprise when the visitors cut loose after the interval.
They were helped by the temporary banishment of the Wales full-back Leigh Halfpenny, who was yellow-carded for an early tackle on O'Connor after some characteristically inventive midfield work from Barnes. "I feel for Leigh because from his position, he couldn't quite see whether O'Connor was in possession or not," said Warren Gatland, the Wales coach. "The way the ball bounced, he could be forgiven for thinking O'Connor had the ball." True enough, but "not quite knowing" has never been much of a legal defence.
In Halfpenny's absence, the Wallabies ran in three converted tries: Genia sniped off a close-range ruck to set the ball rolling; O'Connor freed Lachie Turner with the most finely judged of cut-out passes; Barnes inflicted further pain by tracking Radike Samo towards the right corner and taking his weighted delivery at the optimum moment. At 24-6 down, Wales were nowhere to be seen. When they briefly reappeared, Rhys Priestland, probably their best player, fell back on the old "show and go" routine to claim his side's first try, thereby laying the foundations for Williams' final-move flourish.
There are those who believe rugby will not see the little man's like again, for top-level union is widely assumed to be made for people twice his size. But union is still a game that can fly in the face of logic: who can explain, even now, how the French made the World Cup final, or England, with their limitless resources, turned out to be so profoundly hopeless? Another player of Williams' stamp will emerge one of these fine days, and when he does, the sport will rejoice.
Wales: Tries Priestland, Shane Williams; Con Biggar; Pens Priestland 2. Australia: Tries Genia, Turner, Barnes; Cons O'Connor 3; Pen O'Connor.
Wales L Halfpenny; G North (A Cuthbert, 69), Scott Williams, J Roberts, Shane Williams; R Priestland (D Biggar, 74), L Williams (T Knoyle, 73); G Jenkins, H Bennett (M Rees, 59), S Andrews (R Bevington, 59), B Davies, I Evans (R Jones, 65), D Lydiate (J Tipuric, 65), S Warburton (capt), T Faletau.
Australia A Ashley-Cooper (B Tapuai, 75); L Turner, A Fainga'a, B Barnes, D Ioane; J O'Connor, W Genia; J Slipper, T Polota-Nau (S Moore, 51), S Ma'afu (B Alexander, 51), R Simmons (N Sharpe, 67), J Horwill (capt), S Higginbotham, D Pocock (R Samo, h-t), B McCalman.
Referee J Kaplan (South Africa).
- More about:
- P Funk