Wales demonstrate that, like Halfpenny, they are not as damaged as had been feared
Wales 12 Australia 14
The Millennium Stadium
Monday 03 December 2012
Leigh Halfpenny was discharged from the University Hospital in Cardiff yesterday morning. Thankfully, the neck injury the Welsh full-back suffered in attempting to stop Australia's last-minute, match-winning try on Saturday was not as serious as it looked as Nathan Sharpe's farewell party piece conversion attempt was held up while the prone No 15 was strapped to a stretcher. "I want to say thank you to all of the medical teams who have looked after me following my injury," Halfpenny said.
What about the damage done by summer and autumn whitewashes to the clean-sweep Grand Slammers of last spring? Wales may have slipped out of the top eight in the IRB world rankings after seven successive defeats, but on the evidence of their final match of a roller-coaster 2012 they are not suffering from a terminally bad side.
Indeed, had it not been for one minute of naivety (as Warren Gatland put it) out of 80, they – like England – would have been celebrating a famous victory against one of the big three from the southern hemisphere.
As it is, none of the eight top nations will be greatly enamoured if they end up with a fixture against Halfpenny and Co in the 2015 Rugby World Cup draw at the Tate Modern this afternoon. Wales may have plumbed the depths in their first two autumn contests, against Argentina and Samoa, but for the third time in four meetings with the Wallabies this year they finished within two points of the world's second-ranked nation.
Not that Gatland, the head coach who now resumes his British and Irish Lions duties in preparation for next summer's tour to Australia, or Sam Warburton, the Wales captain, were in the mood for consolation after Kurtley Beale's last-minute score snatched victory from their grasp.
"It's probably the hardest defeat I've had to take as a player," Warburton said. "I am absolutely gutted. I felt like today was the day we were definitely going to do it."
"We put ourselves in a position where we should have won the match," Gatland added. "We just needed to be a little bit smarter at the death. We showed a little bit of naivety."
To be fair, Wales showed other failings: a laxity at the line-out and a struggle to get a grip at the breakdown, particularly in the first half, when the penalty count against them stretched into double figures. Still, with 11 players on the injured list, the credit far outweighed the debit in a performance that had the Millennium Stadium crowd singing hymns and arias again – until the cruel, deflating denouement, that is.
Halfpenny was immense, all 5ft 10in of him. It was his counter- attacking from deep that summoned back some of the Welsh mojo of last spring. It was his long-range goal-kicking (four penalties out of five) that kept the scoreboard kicking for the home side.
And it was the 23-year-old full-back's fearless, last-line defending that kept the Wallabies at bay for 79 minutes, with try-saving tackles on Drew Mitchell and Berrick Barnes.
Sadly, when it came to the crunch of Australia's last-gasp break up the right, Halfpenny nailed Dave Dennis but could not stop the replacement flanker slipping a scoring pass to Beale. Still, the young Welsh warrior departed on the shield of a stretcher after the kind of display that was the watching JPR Williams' trademark in the red 15 battle dress.
"I have always been a firm supporter of big, powerful full-backs but the more I watch this lad the more I like him," the venerable JPR said. "He's brave and quick and loves to counter-attack.
"I won't make any predictions in terms of the starting line-up for the Lions next summer because I am a big fan of Rob Kearney too. Still, I would go as far as saying that, fitness permitting, Leigh will be on the plane to Australia."
Robbie Deans, for one, will be expecting him. Australia's head coach also happens to be a paid up member of the Halfpenny fan club. "He's a huge talent," the one-time All Black full back said. "He plays with huge heart and his ability to cover the ground is remarkable... I hope he recovers OK."
Wales: Penalties Halfpenny 4.
Australia: Try Beale; Penalties Beale 3.
Wales Replacements: R Jones (Ospreys) for Charteris 5-8, 40; J Tipurec (Ospreys) for Faletau, 60; K Owens (Scarlets) for Rees, 66.
Australia: Replacements: D Dennis (NSW Waratahs) for Higginbotham, 16; S Moore (Brumbies) for Polota Nau, 40; D Ioane (Queensland Reds) for Cummins, 49; M Hooper (NSW Waratahs) for Douglas, 52; M Harris (Queensland Reds) for Tapuai, 59; J Slipper (Queensland Reds) for Robinson, 62; S Kepu (NSW Waratahs) for Alexander, 67.
Referee W Barnes (England).
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