Anyone who had suffered the full three weeks of misery at Twickenham, that dark dungeon of the rugby spirit, might have been forgiven for abandoning even the faintest hope of a weakened Wales and a mortified Australia redeeming the autumn international series. O ye of little faith. Wales were deeply flawed, but at least they tried to play. The Wallabies? They were so magically good at times, they could have swapped places with the seminal 1984 Grand Slammers without being exposed as impostors.
A week previously in Edinburgh, the tourists had invented a new way of losing a rugby match and were slaughtered by the media back home. The reaction was so overcooked, the newsprint turned to ash: if pundits following the Wallabies occasionally feel hard done by, they should try watching England for a living. On Saturday night, Australia rediscovered the things they do best and invented new, wonderful ways of scoring tries. The first of four, created by Matt Giteau and finished by Digby Ioane, was jaw-dropping.
"We care very much about what we do," said Robbie Deans, their coach, as he reflected on the extremes of the final week of his season. "We're also very aware that others care as well – people who have the harder job, in the sense that they don't have our ability to influence things. I'm pretty happy with what we achieved out there today: instead of waiting for it to come, we forced it to come. But there's no point drawing parallels or joining the dots from week to week, because you end up chasing your tail. Test rugby is played on the day and until you do something, it's not done. Here, in this game, we did what we set out to do."
Lots of international teams – all of them, probably... even England, in their unrelentingly negative way – take the field with the intent of playing the rugby of the Gods. Precious few of them manage it, or even reach the mid-point of a very long road. Yet in the opening half-hour here, the Wallabies performed at a level with which Wales could not even begin to cope. The tourists were strong in the scrum, ruthlessly efficient on the floor – David Pocock, the new open-side flanker, is almost as good as everyone says, which makes him seriously accomplished - and supreme in the air, where the likes of Adam Ashley-Cooper and Will Genia were of Aussie Rules standard.
However, this was only a small part of it. What truly separated the two sides was pace – not only speed across the field, but speed of thought too. Wales are hardly a bunch of slowcoaches, but in the 24 minutes it took the Wallabies to score three tries and 20 points, it was as if the home team had trained like long-distance runners, only to turn up at the wrong meeting and find themselves sprinting against Usain Bolt. The exceptional Pocock was too fast and alert for them in the loose, while in the thinking department they were left for dead by Genia, Giteau and the increasingly assured Quade Cooper.
Warren Gatland and Shaun Edwards, the men at the top of the Welsh coaching structure, were not of a mind to mince words. "We were dominated in the air, at the scrum and in the contact," admitted Gatland. "Modern rugby is about the aerial battle and the contest at the breakdown, and in those areas we came second," confessed Edwards.
If it sounded bleak, it was also accurate. Neither man having studied at the Rob Andrew/Martin Johnson School of Ostrich-Speak, they simply told it how it was.
The Welsh hierarchy had talked up the Red Dragonhood's chances of recording a landmark victory over the Wallabies, and if their words provoked a withering response from the tourists – "We were aware of the word on the street; we couldn't go for a coffee without hearing the banter," said Deans with a smirk – they also left Gatland a hostage to fortune. Yet for a spell either side of the interval, this was a real game.
Penalties short and long from Stephen Jones and Leigh Halfpenny just about kept Wales in touch, and when Jones freed Jamie Roberts with a clever pass out of contact 10 minutes into the second period, the contest was at a tipping point. Unfortunately, the Lions centre failed to back himself against the covering Drew Mitchell and allowed the opportunity to slip away.
Until the weekend, lost opportunities had been the story of this Wallaby visit; having played both Ireland and Scotland off the park, they arrived in the Welsh capital with their entirely legitimate Grand Slam ambitions buried under a landslide of misplaced generosity.
But they gave away little or nothing this time. After Giteau's wondrous running grubber-kick off the "wrong" foot had opened the door for Ioane, there was a second try for the lock James Horwill, largely the result of another startling open-field burst from the running prop Benn Robinson, and a third for Pocock, who took full advantage of a close-range platform created by Genia's inspired catch-scamper-kick routine from deep in his own half.
Pocock's early departure with a dislocated digit cramped the Wallaby style after the break, but they continued to prosper at the scrum, where Wales missed every hair – and there are an awful lot of them – on the head of Adam Jones, their most dependable tight-head prop.
Every time the Australians established an attacking position in opposition territory they threatened to capitalise, and it was no great surprise when Giteau's clean midfield break early in the final quarter cleared the way for the replacement hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau to score unchallenged. Thirty-point hidings being far from pleasant, Gatland's condemnation of the Welsh performance as the "most disappointing" of his two-year tenure was predictable.
Still, Wales are not England, and for this, they can be truly thankful. When the two teams meet at Twickenham in February, only one of them will only dream of playing like the Wallabies.
Wales Penalties: S Jones 3, Halfpenny. Australia Tries: Ioane, Horwill, Pocock, Polota-Nau; Conversions: Giteau 2; Penalties: Giteau 3.
Wales: J Hook (Ospreys); L Halfpenny (Cardiff Blues), J Roberts (Cardiff Blues), J Davies (Scarlets), S Williams (Ospreys); S Jones (Scarlets), D Peel (Sale); G Jenkins (Cardiff Blues, capt), M Rees (Scarlets), P James (Ospreys), A W Jones (Ospreys), L Charteris (Newport Gwent Dragons), D Lydiate (Newport Gwent Dragons),
M Williams (Cardiff Blues), A Powell (Cardiff Blues).
Replacements: T James (Cardiff Blues) for S Williams 5; M Roberts (Scarlets) for Peel 11-16 and 74; A Bishop (Ospreys) for Halfpenny 29; H Bennett (Ospreys) for Rees 32; D Jones (Ospreys) for James 48; S Warburton (Cardiff Blues) for Lydiate 48; J Thomas (Ospreys) for Charteris 50; Lydiate for Powell 62-66.
Australia: A Ashley-Cooper (ACT Brumbies); P Hynes (Queensland), D Ioane (Queensland), Q Cooper (Queensland); D Mitchell (New South Wales); M Giteau (ACT Brumbies), W Genia (Queensland); B Robinson (New South Wales), S Moore (ACT Brumbies), B Alexander (ACT Brumbies), J Horwill (Queensland), D Mumm (New South Wales), R Elsom (ACT Brumbies, capt), D Pocock (Western Force), W Palu (New South Wales).
Replacements: G Smith (ACT Brumbies) for Pocock H-T; T Polota-Nau (New South Wales) for Moore 56; J O'Connor (Western Force) for Hynes 62; M Dunning (Western Force) for Alexander 72; M Chisholm (ACT Brumbies) for Paul 72; K Beale (New South Wales) for Mitchell 72; L Burgess (New South Wales) for Genia 81.
Referee: W Barnes (England).Reuse content