For 79 minutes it had been shaping up to be not so much a last hurrah as a round of sympathetic applause. Then Shane Williams, playing his 87th and final Wales Test before retiring from a superstar international career, skated past Berrick Barnes and Anthony Fainga'a to score his 58th try for his country. The Millennium Stadium were able to cheer – no, shriek – their heartfelt acclaim.
We may never see Williams's like again: a man possessed of almost every one of nature's gifts for his game apart from the height and weight of the galloping rhinos prevalent in post-millennium rugby. There were only two sets of shorterlegs on the field, and they belonged to his children, Georgie and Carter, as they joined "Dadi" (as it said on the backs of their jerseys) for the obligatory lap of honour. Williams's voice cracked and failed him in the interview relayed over the public address, but his sense of timing and theatre did not.
Overall in this cash cow of a one-off Test, the Wales bandwagon that had been set rolling during the World Cup took a lurch into the pits. From the cast of characters who finished with defeat by Australia in the third-fourth place match they were lacking six principal characters. Adam Jones, Alun Wyn Jones and Luke Charteris were invalided out of the tight five while Mike Phillips, James Hook and Lee Byrne were lost in France; not released by their clubs.
The teams will meet again in Australia next summer, for three Tests under a revamped international programme described as a return to old-fashioned touring – though no one recalls Wales, England or anyone else from these shores other the Lions playing three Tests on such a trip.
The Wallabies will go into that series feeling they have quite the upper hand; one they played stylishlyyesterday, with James O'Connor and Berrick Barnes intelligently and creatively sharing the fly-half duties and sundry forwards dealing capably with the threat of Wales's captain and openside flanker, Sam Warburton, at the breakdown. The contrast with the limited footballing skill offered by the muscular Welsh centres, Jamie Roberts and Scott Williams, outside Rhys Priestland was starkly obvious. Size is not everything. Eh, Shane?
The Welsh line-out regressed to its heeby-jeeby state of before the World Cup and Scott Andrews's second cap at tighthead prop was a tough one. Neither the man of the hour on the left wing nor Williams's much younger and bigger heir, George North on the right, could make much headway.
In the need to eke out some decent field position Priestland kicked a lot out of hand, but it merely encouraged an Aussie back line of murderous threat, from the sniping Will Genia to the brashly unafraid full-back, Adam Ashley-Cooper. Though Wales led 6-3 at half-time they survived a desperately tight call from the television match official, Geoff Warren, who ruled that Lachie Turner's backside had gone into touch as he was clattered by Shane Williams's desperate leg tackle.
The move that led to it was telling. O'Connor had just lumped a penaltywide – in the second half the 21-year-old suffered an even more awful miss, hitting a post from within the 22 – when Priestland's shallow drop out was brilliantly run back by Ashley-Cooper. He had David Pocock in support and Barnes on hand to dab a beautiful cross-kick into Turner's hands.
An unfortunate yellow card signalled Wales's undoing. Barnes picked a pass off his toes and chipped for O'Connor. The chasing Leigh Halfpenny tackled O'Connor early – believing, probably, that the ball was bouncing into the Aussie fly-half's hands – and went to the sin bin. Some of these 10-minute hiatuses pass without much damage. Not this one. Australia, with Genia getting them going with a dummy off a ruck to score near the posts, O'Connor to convert, went from three points down to 24-6 up.
The ball from O'Connor's kick off the post stayed in Wales's half and Turner scored on his opposite wing, from O'Connor's miss-pass. O'Connor converted that and the third try, after 61 minutes, when Radike Samo fed Barnes to canter through a badly outnumbered Welsh short side.
"There's no doubt the level of intensity week-in, week-out in Super Rugby and the Tri-Nations is an advantage," said Warren Gatland, the Wales head coach, after an umpteenth near miss against a southern power. He also disagreed with the yellow card. At least his side mustered two tries. Some force from the bench enabled Lloyd Williams to send Priestland over with a flat pass before Ryan Jones mucked up a promising position with tunnel vision and Shane Williams finished it off with a one-handed cartwheel. Two historical heroes, Barry John and Graham Price, had stood and applauded before kick-off. To that pair's high-stepping and heft Williams added something unique, as an authentic Valleys boy and a twinkle-toed assassin.
'I was bawling my eyes out'
Shane Williams started and finished his final match for Wales in tears, which was what the public and the sensitive gentlemen of the press wanted. The 90 minutes or so between the wing struggling to sing the anthem and struggling to answer a deathless piece of BBC-ese – "I'm not going to ask you for a highlight, but what moment in your career really stands out?" – threatened to tarnish the occasion somewhat, but at the end of the match and after it, Williams came up trumps.
"The crowd's support was fantastic," he said. "Because of them I was bawling my eyes out."
Williams made his debut for Wales on 5 February 2000, playing alongside Shane Howarth and Brett Sinkinson in the days before the Grannygate scandal. That match, against France, began with great expectation and finished in a right old hammering, 36-3. His final game, began in a similarly upbeat mood – unfortunately, after 63 minutes Australia got out to 24-6 with a try that started with Williams, standing in at fly-half, dithering, passing to no one and setting off towards his own line in pursuit. After a few phases, Berrick Barnes strolled over on the left wing, where Williams was hopelessly outnumbered.
Williams's first half had been one of dodgy service from his centres, a knock-on or two, short bursts of speed and kicks that went too long, finding touch or the arms of a lurking Wallaby. There was, granted, a try-saving tackle on Lachie Turner – thanks to the video referee's decision not to give the benefit of the doubt to the attacker.
The second half provided more of the underwhelming same – one nice effort, a step, shimmy and pass round the back of Barnes to send Wales away up the left, ended with Williams suffering from cramp. For a moment it seemed that his last act in international rugby would be to be absolutely hammered by Ben Tapuai.
Fortunately, Wales mounted another attack, Jonathan Kaplan played advantage for a Wallaby infringement and Williams left Barnes on his bottom, beat Anthony Faingaa's dive and scored a lovely try with a sort of handstand-cum-cartwheel-cum-summersault.
The Australia coach, Robbie Deans, said: "He's a once-in-a-generation player and deserves every acknowledgement he gets. I wasn't excited at the time of the try, until I saw who'd scored it."
Wales L Halfpenny; G North (A Cuthbert, 69), Scott Williams, J Roberts, Shane Williams; R Priestland (D Biggar, 74), L Williams; G Jenkins, H Bennett (M Rees, 59), S Andrews (R Bevington, 59), B Davies, I Evans (R Jones, 65), D Lydiate (J Tipuric, 65), T Faletau, S Warburton (capt).
Australia A Ashley-Cooper (B Tapuai, 76); L Turner, A Fainga'a, B Barnes, D Ioane; J O'Connor, W Genia; J Slipper, T Polota-Nau (S Moore, 52), S Ma'afu (B Alexander, 52), R Simmons (N Sharpe, 67), J Horwill (capt), S Higginbotham, B McCalman, D Pocock (capt; R Samo, 40).
Referee J Kaplan (South Africa).
Tries: Priestland, Shane Williams
Pens: Priestland 2
Tries: Turner, Genia, Barnes
Cons: O'Connor 3