JON CARDINELLI reports on Australia’s 27-19 victory over Wales in Brisbane on Saturday.
Following the embarrassing loss to Scotland on Tuesday, the Wallabies would have been looking to make a statement via a powerful performance against Wales. They got it right in patches in Saturday’s series opener, dominating the first half and then finishing strongly in the final 15 minutes.
It was not the typical razzle-dazzle that produced the desired result, but rather a more combative attitude at the collisions and smarter tactical game. While the Wallabies still managed to finish two of their three tries in spectacular fashion, they were mindful of the abrasive Welsh defence and that it would take patience as well as physicality to break down the red and white wall.
The visitors were outplayed at the collisions, and this allowed Wallabies fetcher David Pocock to edge opposite number Sam Warburton at the breakdown. Pocock weighed in with some important breakdown steals, and it was his omnipresence at the rucks that slowed the recycle when the Welsh were in possession. This blunted the Welsh attack, and made it easier for the Wallabies to defend.
The Suncorp Stadium track is conducive to running rugby, and Wales seemed mindful of the Wallabies’ strengths out wide. They attempted to keep the hosts honest in the wider channels but neglected to mark the area around the ruck. And it was here where the Wallabies punished them, a series of pick-and-goes resulting in a try for Scott Higginbotham in the 16th minute.
Wales would fight back at the end of the first half, if only to ensure the scoreline remained at a respectable 10-3. But they lapsed badly at the start of the second stanza, their focus on wide defence once again compromising their defence around the ruck.
Will Genia exploited this space expertly and then effected an outrageous side-step to negotiate the last line of defence. The finish was a moment of individual brilliance and highlighted Genia’s running threat, but again the Wallabies had done well to work themselves into a good field position before launching an assault.
Apart from his try, Genia looked every bit the general in the No 9 position. When the Wallabies built some momentum through the forwards, his delivery from the base served to quicken the tempo and further stretch the Welsh defence.
His tactical kicking also put the Welsh under pressure, as did that of flyhalf Berrick Barnes. Barnes showed good composure and execution in this fixture, placing rolling probes and high-hanging kicks in positions where team-mates could contest and in some instances regain possession. It was a massive improvement on Tuesday’s performance against Scotland.
The game looked to be the Wallabies’ to lose after Genia’s try had extended the lead to 17-3. But the cool goal-kicking of Wales fullback Leigh Halfpenny and the fighting spirit of the Welsh pack allowed the visitors to narrow the deficit.
It served to show just how important Genia’s strike was in the context of the game. The Wallabies had played a draining Test against Scotland four days previously, and it was evident that a few players began to tire in the second half against Wales. The Wallabies were not as effective at controlling the ball at close quarters, and as the game grew looser, Wales came into their own.
Wing Alex Cuthbert had been outstanding for the visitors and it was his try that really brought the Dragons in sight of an upset. The ball went loose at a ruck and was subsequently hacked behind the Aussie defence. Cuthbert eventually got his hands on the ball to finish, and another great conversion by Halfpenny took the score to 20-16.
Wales butchered a try-scoring opportunity moments later. They had the Wallabies’ defence stretched but just couldn’t get the ball through the hands. They were then awarded a penalty which Halfpenny duly slotted, but looking back, that missed try was costly. Five or seven points would have taken them into the lead. As it was, three points saw them still trailing at 20-19.
In the final minutes, the Wallabies rediscovered their composure. The forwards controlled the ball well, and the halfbacks kicked the team into good field positions.
The hosts kept it close, hammering away at the Welsh defence until Pat McCabe ran a great angle to score under the posts. At 27-19, the game was over as a contest.
The result sees Australia taking a 1-0 lead in the three-Test series. Wales will need to produce a more consistent defensive effort and indeed a stronger showing at the collisions if they are going to bounce back in next week’s match.