Warren Gatland will change almost his entire starting line-up against Tonga next Saturday as he reflects on a seven-match unbeaten run which has seen his Wales team develop the happy knack of winning ugly.
After a thoroughly workmanlike victory over of Scotland in the opening Under Armour Test of the autumn, Gatland’s men were at it again on Saturday as they ended a 13-match, decade-long losing streak to Australia with a hard-fought 9-6 win at the Principality Stadium.
It was anything but pretty. A game almost completely bereft of line breaks, phase play or attacking inventiveness proved surprisingly frustrating to watch as two sides usually brimming with adventure went all shy on each other ahead of next year’s meeting in the World Cup pool stages.
In truth, it was painful viewing but ultimately the result will be remembered as the one which finally removed a Wallaby sized mill stone from around Welsh necks.
Leigh Halfpenny, Wales’ world-class kicker, missed two of the simplest kicks at goal it is possible to recall in the first half, before dusting himself down to slot two penalties and produce a fine performance at full back while Gatland’s decision to load his bench with 180 caps of experience paid handsome dividends.
Dan Biggar came off the bench to kick the all-important winning penalty with less than four minutes left – with Halfpenny removed from the field following an awful challenge from Semu Kerevi which inexplicably went unpunished by referee Ben O’Keeffe – after Australia replacement Matt To’omua looked to have earned his side a barely deserved draw.
Ellis Jenkins, Rob Evans, Tomos Williams and Liam Williams impressed as Gatland all but emptied his bench in the second half as Wales avoided the sort of last-gasp loss that had become an unwanted recurrent theme of meetings between these sides over the past decade.
Biggar is certain to start at fly half against Tonga in place of Gareth Anscombe, who hardly put a foot wrong in a stifling game where few players were able to express their attacking skills, as Gatland looks to add more squad depth and rest tired bodies.
In years gone by that would have led to calls the Test was being devalued but such is the attrition rate on players these days there is a growing understanding, in Wales at least, they cannot simply be flogged indefinitely if they want to retain peak performance. Besides, Wales have developed such depth in recent times it will hardly have the air of a second string.
Biggar, Jenkins, Williams and Evans would grace most country’s starting XVs while wing Luke Morgan deserves another crack after failing to make an impact on his debut against Scotland.
Worcester wing Josh Adams, who did not feature against Scotland, was outstanding against Australia on Saturday and is likely to retain his place as Wales look to stretch their winning run to eight in a row.
With a growing strength in depth to his squad, Gatland will be delighted with his side’s progress over the past 12 months and despite the dour nature of Saturday’s win, he will reflect on the fact Wales teams of the past would have constructed a way to lose that game.
Australia apparently need no lessons in how to lose. They were dreadful again on Saturday off the back of a Rugby Championship campaign which saw them go backwards as the long-respected tradition of high-quality Wallaby handling skills seem to have deserted them.
Bernard Foley was lacklustre at fly half, Will Genia ineffective at scrum half while the towering presence of Israel Folau hardly got a look in on the wing as Wales snuffed Michael Cheika’s men out at source and stifled any attacking intent.
The Wallaby pack was earnest but will hardly strike fear in to top opponents with world-class operators Michael Hooper and David Pocock unable to lift their team-mates to greater heights.
Captain Hooper looked close to cracking at the final whistle, such is his frustration at his team’s inability to progress. It is hard to recall a Wallaby team as rudderless and ineffective.
Now ranked sixth in the world, while Wales are ranked third and apparently only going in one direction, it would be a brave man to bet against Gatland’s men repeating this victory when the sides meet again in Japan in less than a year.
The monkey is off the back and Wales are looking up. These are good times for Welsh rugby. Not so for Australia.
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