Wales thwarted by Australia again
There was very little unlucky with this 13. In the previous dozen defeats in succession to Australia, there were times when Wales had every right to look to the heavens. Not this time, not even because of Kurtley Beale’s supposedly fortuitous try.
Warren Gatland’s men were far from humiliated here but then again, their nine-year unsuccessful Wallaby run has long gone past the red-faced.
Anthony Joshua’s world championship win against Carlos Takam was the last sporting event to happen here in the Principality Stadium, and, two weeks on, essentially it was a similar story. A class opponent doing as much as was necessary against a wannabe.
Like Takam, Wales left telling themselves they could hold their held up high; and maybe even believing they had been presented with a pop at glory. Yet, essentially, deep down, they are wondering how they can possibly breach this gap before the World Cup in two years.
Inevitably, Gatland presented a positive front. “We are obviously disappointed in terms of the result – we were architects of our own downfall by making it too easy for them early on,” he said. “But as the game wore on we were applying a lot of pressure – and if it hadn’t been for a freakish second-half try, I think we might well have gone on to win it.”
Well, they are used to seeing four tries shipped past them in the opening match of the autumn series. The last time Wales won an opening game in the fall was in 2002 – against Romania. Maybe someone needs a word with the fixture secretary.
It should not be all doom and gloom, however. Gatland, through injury and a view to the next World Cup, felt obliged to play an ambitious 15 and they did a damn sight better than last year’s 32-8 humbling to the same opposition 12 months ago.
Wales were without the likes of Sam Warburton, Ross Moriarty, George North, Justin Tipuric and others such as Samson Lee. And the Owen Williams experiment appeared to work, if nothing else. Much was said about the flyhalf ’s selection at inside centre and the benefits in employing a second fiveeighth were, at times, evident.
The worries at the end, though, were for Williams’s centre partner, Jonathan Davies, who went down in agony with an ankle injury sustained in the final play of the game.
“He has been strapped up and is on a crutch,” said Gatland. “It doesn’t look brilliant, but we will know probably in the next 24 hours or so.”
Some two hours before Davies’ injury the visitors had grasped the initial advantage with a driving maul, which was, to be frank, rather pathetically allowed to roll itself over with hooker Tatafu Polata-Nau touching down.
A characteristic line-break by Gareth Davies presented Wales some goforward and from there a flowing move, featuring Williams switching to playmaker and Dan Biggar enacting a perfect take-and-give, allowed Steff Evans to score on his first home start.
But Bernard Foley soon established himself as the game’s notable conductor and the more he touched the ball the more his side took control. There was not much in it – there rarely has been in the last decade between this two – but when a player such as Foley is using his boot as the baton, then it is so easy to be mesmerised by his tune.
Except it was not just Foley pulling the strings off his laces. Granted, Michael Cheika went in with a huge midfield, leading Gatland to ask “who’s playing Warrenball now?”. But when you have an oval-ball artist such as Beale at full-back, and willing to come in and assume the creative duties, then it spells danger to those staring into the attacking faces and simply wondering “where next?”
Particularly when Will Genia, a scrum-half who was threatening to lose his way, is storming back to his strategic best. It was the man-of-thematch’s sumptuous pass to lock Adam Coleman which regained the impetus.
Saying that, Wales had only themselves to blame for going in nine points to the bad. After Leigh Halfpenny brought it back to just four points, all they needed to do was see out the final two minutes of the half. Alas, clearing their kick-offs is something at which they do not excel. Michael Hooper, the Australian captain, burst his way over.
Halfpenny brought it back to six points and the roars rippled. There were many opportunities. The game loosened and it began to go through the Welsh hands. But chances were dropped and the Wallabies highlighted why they are rated as the third best team in the world.
Davies, who was excellent in the No9, role, lost the ball under the close and highly physical pressure of Tevita Kuridrani and the exquisite mass of skill who is Beale was given licence to run the length of the pitch. Hooper saw yellow and Hallam Amos dived in at the corner and gave the contest its interest in the final throes, but the result was never really in doubt.
With Georgia to come next Saturday and Gatland promising wholesale changes, Chieka had some consoling words for the Dragons. “I thought the new No12, Williams, went really well and the way Wales tried to play is probably a sign of the way the game is going,” he said, as he celebrated his seventh game without defeat. “They have a lot to feel proud of. I think this was a better performance than when we came here last year and won by 30 points.”
Safe hands: Steff Evans makes a clean catch despite the best efforts of Australia’s Michael Hooper at the Principality Stadium last night
Pain game: Jonathan Davies suffers an ankle injury in the final play of the match