Biggar holds nerve to ensure gutsy Welsh end decade of hurt against Wallabies
Finally. After 10 years, 13 successive defeats and so many agonisingly close calls, Wales actually went ahead and beat Australia and even if the game was ugly, the victory, itself, felt like a thing of rare beauty to the Principality Stadium. The nerves were shredded but then so were the attacking gameplans in this tryless, excruciating nail-biter.
Dan Biggar was ultimately the hero, nervelessly kicking the winning penalty with three minutes to go, after Leigh Halfpenny, the metronome with the radar in his right boot, had suffered a nightmarish malfunction.
And so they jumped around and celebrated and toasted those exorcised ghosts, in the knowledge that they have at last shed the monkey off their backs just in time for next year’s World Cup in Japan, where they face Australia in the pool stages.
“It has been a long time coming,” Alun Wyn Jones, the Wales captain, said. “Someone reminded me I was the sole survivor from the win in 2008 and that shows how old I am. This is sweeter. Dan is a competitive animal and he probably wouldn’t have wanted it any other way that for it to come down to the wire and then come on and do his job.”
Warren Gatland had purposefully kept this British and Irish Lion lying in wait to thwart the customary Australia late charge for glory and so his plan paid off. Except nobody who had witnessed the previous 10 years of excitement would have planned for this encounter in which the defenders and the referee’s whistle had far too much influence. “It was not pretty but we will take any win against this lot,” Justin Tipuric, the man of the match, said.
This makes it seven wins in a row for Wales – their longest triumphant run for 13 years – and as Tipuric said “we are building up some serious momentum”. That is in stark contrast to Australia, who have lost eight out of their 10 matches this year. Michael Cheika, their coach, is in trouble and for his continuing employment the forthcoming Tests against Italy and England will take on huge significance.
“It has been a long time jinx playing us and you could see how happy they were to get on top,” Michael Hooper, the Australian captain, said. “It was a real grudge match. Congratulations to Wales, but it really hurts. We will regroup. We have got two more games to play on this trip and a hell of a lot to play for each week.”
In his jubilation, Gatland still harboured a gripe. He was understandably baffled that Ben O’Keeffe, the New Zealand referee, did not even award a penalty for Kurtley Beale’s late, crashing shoulder into Halfpenny’s head.
The full-back was forced to leave the field and now has to undergo the HIA
South Africa scored a try in stoppage time to snatch a 29-26 win over France at the Stade de France. The Springboks stole possession with less than a minute left and went almost the entire length of the field, with the help of four penalties, before hooker Bongi Mbonambi surged over. They had been 23-9 down early in the second half. protocols. He said: “It was reckless. He’s gone for the charge down and just stayed in that position. You can move your shoulder out of there and have less of an impact on Leigh. I thought it warranted a penalty or a yellow card.”
On Halfpenny’s penalty woes in the first half, Gatland said: “I never thought I’d see the day when Leigh Halfpenny would miss two penalties from in front of the posts but hopefully that will be his monkey off the back as well. Maybe in the past, his game would have gone to pieces after that, but world-class players shrug it off and get on with it and this what Leigh did in the second half. I thought he was outstanding.”
Gatland revealed that he will likely field an entirely different XV for next week’s clash with Tonga and, in truth, the first-teamers could probably do with a rest after this Test of attrition. The normal narrative for this fixture in the last decade has been an open, freescoring spectacular in which Australia have always found the wherewithal at the death to break red-shirted hearts. This did not follow the script at all.
It was a first-half, in particular, which only a mother and a defence coach could ever have loved. There was very little, if anything, to get the fans off their feet, although the sight of Halfpenny skewing a few sitters did have many observers standing up and rubbing their eyes in astonishment.
If his push in the 13th minute was surprising, then his miss just before the break was truly jaw-dropping. As the teams trooped down the tunnel, Halfpenny stood there on the pitch with his head in the hands in disbelief that he failed to make it 6-3. This simply does not happen to the Scarlets full-back.
As Gatland said, Halfpenny came out like a player possessed after the break, although he was actually plainly desperate to dispossess himself of his demons.
The second half was more watchable for the thrill-seekers, but the lines still held firm. “That was probably the most comfortable we’ve ever been defensively playing against Australia,” Gatland said.
In fairness, the visitors looked just as comfortable in defence and so the arm wrestle continued. Wales lost George North to a dead leg early in the second half, but it was already the other Welsh wing impressing. Gatland was gushing about the contribution about Josh Adams. “He was my man of the match, “Gatland said. “I thought he was absolutely brilliant.”
Liam Williams came on for North, as Gatland began to empty what he called “the strongest bench we’ve had in my time with Wales”.
It is doubtful Biggar would have tasted action but for Halfpenny’s knock. By then Halfpenny had converted the penalty to make it 6-3 before Matt Toomua took advantage of O’Keeffe not calling the penalty on Beale by nailing a kick from wide out.
As it was, the Northampton fly-half ’s first touch was the definitive penalty, although Gatland was not so certain it would be enough. “The composure was good in the final stages, not that my composure was good, as I was struggling in the last few minutes as I thought it was going to be deja vu,” Gatland said. “Credit to the guys, though, they held out.”
Boiling point: Australia players surround Ross Moriarty players during Wales’ nail-biting victory, their first in 14 attempts over the Wallabies