Wales edge Wallabies to end 28 years of World Cup misery
TOKYO (AP) — Just minutes into the second half, the scoreboard defied belief to read WALES 26, AUSTRALIA 8, and deliriously happy Welsh fans broke out singing “How Great Thou Art.”
Wales was playing great, indeed, in a packed and sticky Tokyo Stadium on Sunday, but it never pays to count Australia down and out.
Not with 36 minutes to go in a Rugby World Cup match, and not when 11 of the last 12 of these Wales-Wallabies contests have been heart-thumpingly close. In a mere pool match giving off all the intensity of a playoff, Australia came back hard, and another classic ensued.
Two converted tries and a penalty later, and Wales’ lead was slashed from 18 points to just one with 12 minutes to go. Nobody was singing anymore.
Wales stopped the spree with a penalty to star replacement flyhalf Rhys Patchell in the 72nd minute. Of course, the Wallabies’ comeback was far from done.
Several floodlights blew out to add to the pulsating drama, but in the faded light the Wallabies bent the Welsh defense but couldn’t break it.
A knock-on at the Welsh 22 with seconds left finally settled the result on 29-25, and Wales celebrated beating the Wallabies in the Rugby World Cup for the first time in 28 years, and earned the inside track for winning their pool.
“These encounters usually bring out the best in both teams,” Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones said. “We gave it everything.”
Wales lost five straight World Cup matches to the Wallabies, including a quarterfinal and two pool deciders, and ended the streak with a clinical performance.
“It means the destiny of the pool is in our hands,” Wales coach Warren Gatland said. He added he wasn’t taking Fiji and Uruguay lightly, either.
Wales, the Six Nations champion, hit the ground running. Wallabies captain Michael Hooper received the kickoff and was mauled over by Wales, and Dan Biggar slotted a dropped goal after just 40 seconds. The game was back and forth but not as clean again for another 13 minutes, when Wales used a scrum penalty and an advantage to get position for Biggar to crosskick to the right corner, where center Hadleigh Parkes leaped over Australia winger Marika Koroibete to score.
Biggar converted for 10-0, but Koroibete came firing back with a surge down the left touch line that twisted up the defense for Bernard Foley to crosskick to the right, where Adam Ashley-Cooper took the catch, slipped, and still had time to dive over untouched. The tension caused Wallabies coach Michael Cheika to stand and punch the air.
Koroibete was just warming up. Another break down the left saw him heading for the tryline until Biggar hurled himself at the winger and knocked the ball loose.
“A real act of unbelievable bravery,” Patchell said of Biggar’s tackle.
But Biggar took a head knock that removed him from the game, and Patchell strolled in and had an immediate impact. He kicked two penalties, and put the Australians on notice from referee Romain Poite after he appeared to be hit in the neck by Samu Kerevi. Kerevi was harshly judged after his fend hit the chest and slipped up the upright Patchell’s body. The video reviews took several minutes, and the decision left the Australian players confused.
Australia restarted 16-8 down and was stunned by Wales when scrumhalf Gareth Davies, who’d already picked off opposite Will Genia once, intercepted Genia again and ran 60 meters to the line.
Patchell’s conversion gave Wales 10 points in two minutes, and a remarkable 23-8 lead at halftime, their biggest over Australia in 111 years.
Cheika sent in Matt To’omua for Foley, and Nic White soon after for Genia, and the replacements gave the team a pronounced, and more accurate, lift.
But Patchell had a dropped goal in him for 26-8, drawing Welsh fans into song.
The Wallabies started to get on song with To’omua and David Pocock setting up a try for fullback Dane Haylett-Petty, then the forwards going tight and scoring through Hooper from their third consecutive lineout maul.
To’omua converted both and landed a penalty for Australia to trail only 26-25. Yet another grandstand finish was on.
But it was Wales which scored next after George North knocked-on while jumping over Kurtley Beale in the in goal. Patchell landed his third penalty goal to give Wales a little breathing room, only for Australia to suck the air out of the stadium with another attack reaching the Wales quarter. Kerevi lost the ball in contact, and Wales had consecutive wins over Australia for the first time since 1975.
Two-time champion Australia, meanwhile, lost only its third pool game in Rugby World Cup history.
“If we had played for 90 minutes we might have won, we just gave them too much of a lead,” To’omua said. “Once we relaxed and started playing we really felt like we had them on the legs.”