Wales only just survive rain-soaked shambles

Wales 27 Tonga 20
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The Independent Online

Stephen King would have been proud of this shocker. Tonga even had the cheek to do a lap of honour when they should have been bowing their heads. Because if any one of the supposed established nations were there for the taking in this World Cup it was Wales yesterday.

"We made too many mistakes and let them off the hook," said the Tonga coach, Jim Love, who did not know whether to laugh or cry that his team had run Wales so close in conditions straight from the Valleys.

The rains arrived on cue in Canberra, as did at least 10,000 red shirts, but unfortunately the 15 on the park were there in body only; their minds, and especially their spirit, were somewhere else entirely. Martyn Williams alone could hold himself in anything like an upright position, and he only came on with 20 minutes remaining.

Otherwise, it was bad, bad, bad. Rhys Williams had one of those games you wake up screaming about, Stephen Jones likewise - even with 14 points to his name - and goodness knows how Colin Charvis felt. Captain Invisible was less of an anonymous leader than Charvis yesterday.

"We won, we were pleased with that," their coach, Steve Hansen, said. This was the only consolation Wales could take from 80 minutes that must rank right down there with their worst. At least they are heading into the showdown against Italy with two wins to their name, even if that name is threatening to become a laughing stock. Love made no secret which side he expects to front up the tallest next Saturday.

"Physically the Italians are much more aggressive than the Welsh," Love said, and Hansen was not disagreeing. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to work out that if we play like that we won't win," he said.

They would probably not even compete, as there were times yesterday when Wales were truly pitiful. It started off all right with Stephen Jones kicking the first of his four penalties after four minutes. Although Pierre Hola levelled it in the ninth, another Jones penalty nudged the Welsh in front again three minutes later.

When Gareth Cooper dived over in the 24th minute, the scrum-half having stolen in on the blindside from a scrum on the 22, Wales had the daylight they were after at 11-3. Foot on the accelerator, next stop Brisbane and the quarter-finals.

Wishful thinking. Five minutes later, Rhys Williams pressed the start button on the video nasty with a horrific fumble on his own line that allowed Hola to touch down his own chip through. Both sides then traded penalties, Jones kicking them, Hola fluffing them, as the game descended into shambles.

It needed inspiration and it came from the unlikely source of Martyn Williams' boot. The flanker had been on three minutes when Dwayne Peel, the reserve scrum-half, found him in the No 10 position. Williams paused, thought "What the hell" and saw his drop-goal split the posts. "That'll be my first and last," he said.

The Tonga captain, Benhur Kivalu, dragged the arrears back to 20-15 with a push-over try and once again Wales were forced to look within. Not that they found a great deal, apart from Williams. He was in danger of restoring credibility when he latched on to Iestyn Harris' wonderfully timed pass - the only piece of real quality. Jones converted and Wales were 27-15 to the good and seemingly out of reach. But no one had told Tonga who, when Heamani Lavaka crashed over Peel in the corner, were back within a score with three minutes left.

They somehow clung on, another inquest began and Hansen came up with a new excuse. "It's the first time we have played in the rain for a while," he said. When Wales start using their unfamiliarity with the wet stuff as a reason for their inadequacy, you just know they have problems.

Wales: Tries Cooper, M Williams; Conversion S Jones. Penalties S Jones 4; Drop Goals M Williams. Tonga: Tries Hola, Kivalu, Lavaka; Conversion Hola; Penalty Hola.

WALES: R Williams; M Jones, M Taylor, I Harris, T Shanklin, S Jones; G Cooper (D Peel, 57), I Thomas (A Jones, 63); M Davies (H Bennett, 72), G Jenkins, G Llewellyn (C Wyatt, 57), R Sidoli, D Jones, C Charvis (capt), A Popham (M Williams, 60).

TONGA: S Va'enuku; S Fonua, S Hufanga, J Payne, T Tu'ifua; P Hola, S Martens; D Palu (T Lea'aetoa, 71), V Ma'asi (E Taukafa, 70), H Lavaka, U Latu, V Vaki, I Fenukitau (N Naufahu, 73), I Afeaki (J Ngauamo, 63), B Kivalu (capt).

Referee: P Honiss (New Zealand).