Year ends on a high for Wallabies

Australia finished a difficult year on a high, the win in a pulsating game in Cardiff their fourth in a row. They have not achieved this feat for five years, and Ewen McKenzie can enjoy Christmas and look forward to 2014 with far more enthusiasm than could have been imagined early in his reign. The year started with the team playing a conservative brand of rugby under a different coach, with Quade Cooper not even considered for the squad: it ended with the Wallabies playing a high tempo attacking game that the Welsh could not live with for periods of Saturday’s game, with the mercurial Cooper pulling the strings.

The hairs were made to stand up on the back of the neck before the kick off – the Millennium Stadium is the only ground in the world where the entire crowd harmonise during the final strains of their national anthem – and the game itself did not disappoint. With those final bars still echoing under the closed roof the Wallabies went from the brink of ecstasy to despair within 15 seconds in the first meaningful action of the match. Cooper manufactured a gap for Israel Folau with a deft pass, and the full back looked as if he would equal Lote Tuquiri’s record of 10 tries in a season within the opening moments. None of Folau’s teammates could keep pace with him, however, and Wales turned the ball over. George North galloped down the left flank and kicked ahead as defenders converged on him, the ball skewed off Adam Ashley-Cooper’s shin and over the try line where North fell on it to put the home side in front.

Wales extended their lead to 10 points through the boot of dead-eye Leigh Halfpenny, who then restored that advantage after Christian Leali’ifano banished the memories of the previous week’s misses was successful with his first kick. At the mid-point of the first half Michael Hooper did what he has done all year, showing great strength and skill to win possession of the ball from the opposition at a ruck. The ball was transferred from right to left via quick hands and when it appeared Quade Cooper had been shut down by two tacklers he produced a miraculous offload from the back of the hand to put Joe Tomane away down the right touchline, and the winger slipped the ball inside as Halfpenny came across to put Leali’ifano in for the try.

Five minutes before half-time the Wallabies struck again, thanks once more to Cooper. He repeated his back-of-the-hand trick, once again releasing Tomane down the wing when there did not appear to be room to do so. Although Genia dropped Tomane’s inside pass with the line beckoning the reprieve for the home side was only temporary. They cleared to touch and the Wallabies went wide from the resulting line out. Folau was pulled down inches short of the line and Wales fly half Dan Biggar was sin-binned for not allowing him to release the ball. The Wallabies opted for the kick to the corner and the attacking line out, rather than a shot for goal. Adam Ashley-Cooper and Ben Mowen were thwarted by thumping tackles but when Genia’s pass found Folau a metre short of the line nothing was going to stop the full back scoring the record-equalling try. Leali’ifano again converted to give Australia a 17-16 lead at the interval.

The second half opened with the Wallabies retaining their intensity and extending their advantage. Nick Cummins was illegally stopped from releasing the ball after a break to allow Leali’ifano three more points. Cooper then showed he has dancing feet to match his sleight of hand, stepping out of three tackles and creating another chance. Cummins dropped the ball on this occasion, but moments later Copper stretched the defence with a wide pass, and although Folau’s pass to Tomane was poor the winger scooped it off his bootlaces to score in the corner.

At this stage of the game Australia were winning the possession count almost 75-25, and they were seemingly in complete control. Their Achilles heel throughout the tour, however, has been their on-field discipline and now it came back to bite them again. From their 14th transgression of the match Wales took a quick tap-and-go penalty and George North ran a great line to collect the pass and cross for the try which brought his team back within seven points when it was converted, and set up a tense finale. The Wallabies held firm, however, and the energy Wales had expended defending for long periods took its toll as they were kept at bay. A late, long-range penalty reduced the deficit to four points but they could not get close to Australia’s try line, even when Cooper was controversially sin-binned with a few minutes left on the clock.

Despite the narrow margin at the end of the game this was the most impressive performance since McKenzie took the reins after the Lions tour. While Wales sorely missed their Lions centres Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies they still had ten players in their match-day squad who toured down under in the winter. After the self-imposed restrictions on selection in Edinburgh, the team for this game looked closer to the one McKenzie is likely to take forward to the World Cup in 2015. Ashley-Cooper provided his usual power in attack and defence at outside centre, and Leali’ifano looked far more comfortable back at inside centre. Cooper had his most impressive game since returning to the fold, not just in terms of the moments of brilliance in attack but also his overall management of the game and decision-making: that confidence seemed to rub off on Genia, who was able to focus on his own performance and put in his best shift of the tour. And the area of concern before they set off, the forwards, can return from the northern hemisphere with their heads held high. They have fought their corner in the scrum and been competitive at the breakdown, against sides who specialise in those areas. Australian fans can look forward to 2014 with excitement instead of trepidation, and that would not have been foreseeable during the early, dark days on the Rugby Championship a few months ago.

Comments

  1. Luke Reynolds says

    What a great game. Wales are a good team to watch and probably the best Northern Hemisphere team at the moment? Cooper and Folau have been superb.
    You’re right about 2014, looking forward to seeing the Wallabies continued improvement. Thanks for your great Rugby reporting this year Tim.

  2. Tim Ladhams says

    Thanks Luke, it has been a pleasure. It was indeed a great game, the Welsh are the most consistent side in the northern hemisphere – the French can be very good, but also awful.

    Many rugby journos have been drooling about the skills of Cooper and Folau in recent days, I think both can blossom even further under the current set up.

    Look out for the first Rugby Championship game in Sydney next year – if the ABs win the three games against England in June that game will see them attempt to break the record for the longest run of consecutive victories in international rugby history. Not that a Bledisloe needs extra spice….

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