There are a lot of rugby people out there who hate the fact that this game was organised in the first place – it was, after all, staged outside the agreed international “window” – but they cannot for a second take issue with the quality of the entertainment it generated. Pace, movement, wit, imagination, a wondrous execution of skills – if this is modern Test rugby, there might yet be an argument for keeping the window open for as long as possible.
Australia, drawn in the same group as both Wales and England at the next World Cup in 2015, won because they scored 20 unanswered points either side of the interval, but when the out-sized home wing George North scored the second of his tries after leaving opponents as hotly competitive as Ben Mowen and Will Genia in his wake, it seemed as though the Red Dragons would finally end their long and bitterly frustrating run of narrow defeats at the hands of the men in green and gold.
Dan Biggar’s conversion put the hosts within a score, the outside-half’s replacement Rhys Priestland made it closer still with a penalty following Quade Cooper’s early tackle on Scott Williams – Cooper ended the game in the cooler as a consequence – and there were moments at the last knockings when it seemed possible that the scoreline would tilt towards the Welsh. But it didn’t. The Wallabies, very much together again at the end of a fractious year, held out, courageously.
Weirdly – maybe for the first time ever in a match at the top level – there were no scrums in the first half. Not a single one. There was, however, everything else, in helpings so big that even William George Bunter of Greyfriars School would have been sated. The line-outs were contested with a ferocity seldom seen in an age of counter-intuitive defensive strategy; the tackling was even redder in tooth and claw. As for the tries… well, they were quite something. The first fell early to North, who had caused the Wallabies such unmitigated grief during the British and Irish Lions series last summer. It came from an Australian attack that looked like developing into something seriously dangerous, as attacks tend to do when runners as threatening as Cooper and Israel Folau are involved. Yet the ball was turned over on the Welsh 22, spun left at pace to put North in space and when Adam Ashley-Cooper dawdled in clearing up a speculative toe-poke down the touch-line, the try was duly completed.
Leigh Halfpenny, the man who never misses, added the extras and banged over a couple of penalties for good measure, one of them from a testing position near halfway. The Wallabies’ response at this stage was nothing much: Christian Leali’ifano’s straightforward three-pointer from a cosy spot in front of the sticks after Wayne Barnes, the English referee, had spotted Richard Hibbard going off his feet at a ruck.
But my, how they accelerated their response a few minutes later. Cooper, delving deep into a box of tricks that may in the fullness of time prove to be bottomless, set off on the most precise of angled runs towards the right corner flag before finding the wing Joe Tomane with a spellbinding of passes out of the “back door”, to use the modern jargon. Tomane, taking a leaf from the maestro’s book, then found Leali’ifano with a one-handed inside flick and the Wallabies were suddenly within three points of the hosts.
Halfpenny replied by flying in the face of his own reputation. In other words, he missed a shot at the sticks. Not by much – he actually hit the left one – but the scoreboard stayed the same. It only moved again when Biggar landed an easier kick on the half-hour after the Wallaby prop Sekope Kepu was judged to have contested a little too hard at a defensive breakdown. Why Biggar? Not because Halfpenny had suffered any crisis of confidence, but because he was in discomfort with a leg injury.
The respite was brief. Australia, exceptional with ball in hand, launched another withering raid from deep, and even though Folau was stopped on the line, Wales were on the wrong side of the law in doing the necessary, to the extent that Biggar was shown a yellow card. Off went the Wallabies again and this time, the full-back who flows like a fast-moving stream found his way over the line, despite high-impact tackles in the build-up from North and Hibbard.
Crucially, it continued in the same vein after the break: wave upon wave of cleverly constructed Wallaby assaults ended with a try for the excellent Tomane, who picked a pass from Folau off his toes to cross in the right corner. Most observers felt Folau’s pass was forward and they may well have been right, but match officials do not appear to base their decisions on the laws of physics these days. Barnes decided the pass was good, and there was no changing his mind.
Wales: L Halfpenny; A Cuthbert, O Williams (L Williams, 50), S Williams, G North; D Biggar (R Priestland, 63), M Phillips (R Williams, 71); G Jenkins, (R Bevington, h-t) R Hibbard (K Owens, 63), R Jones (S Lee, 66), A W Jones, I Evans, D Lydiate (J Tipuric, 63), S Warburton (capt), T Faletau.
Australia: I Folau; J Tomane, A Ashley-Cooper, C Leali’ifano (M Harris, 62), N Cummins; Q Cooper, W Genia; J Slipper (B Robinson, 63), S Moore (T Polota-Nau, 70), S Kepu (B Alexander, 55), R Simmons, J Horwill (K Douglas, 60), S Fardy, M Hooper, B Mowen (capt, D Dennis, 70).
Referee: W Barnes (Eng).