Australia showed more composure under pressure to win a disappointing Rugby World Cup bronze final against Wales 21-18 at Eden Park in Auckland on Friday night.
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With the Welsh without three of their stars on the night -- flyhalf Rhys Priestland and prop Adam Jones both injured and captain Sam Warburton suspended -- it was always going to be a massive ask from them to beat the Wallabies, who don’t lose often to the men from the Valleys.
But there was a glimmer of hope when Australia lost both Kurtley Beale and Quade Cooper to injury within the first 20 minutes -- the latter doing his knee as he tried to sidestep his way past the Welsh defence. It was a bizarre occurrence, and not one you often see on a rugby field. One second Cooper was trying to dance, the next he was crumpled on the floor without a hand being laid upon him, his World Cup over.
At times both teams looked as if they were tired, at the end of a long journey around the Land of the Long White Cloud. While most expected an open game, there was way too much tactical kicking for the game to be remembered as a spectacle.
But that is unfortunately the case with these Bronze medal games. Often you get the idea they’re a necessary evil, something to spin a bit more money for the IRB and not at all wanted by players and a large part of the fans.
On the night Australia were worth their money, showing how seriously they took the game by opting to kick for posts at every opportunity, rather than be more adventurous and look for tries. Wales will kick themselves for a few missed penalties, showing just what a loss Priestland was to their fortunes.
It was also a night for memories, as Nathan Sharpe earned his 100th cap for the Wallabies and Shane Williams probably played his last match for Wales.
It took 11 minutes for the first try to be scored, with the Wallabies using the good possession they had to their advantage, as Cooper managed to throw the perfect pass to a flying Berrick Barnes on the angle. There was nothing flash about it, just a good line and a good pass, timed perfectly to dissect the defence at exactly the right time.
It put the Aussies up 7-0 but Hook cut that to four with a penalty as the Aussie scrum was pinned within range. Despite several other attempts and both sides trying their utmost, the scoreline stayed that way until the break.
Wales managed to ignite the game into a bit of action eight minutes into the second stanza as they converted turnover ball into a great try. After snaffling the ball at a ruck, halfback Mike Phillips ran sideways before stabbing a beauty of a grubber through for Hook to pick up and carry forward. Hook threw a wild pass to winger Shane Williams who couldn’t quite take it, but decided to toe it ahead as it landed at his feet, grubbering it again before picking up and scoring.
It brought the Welsh within a point of the Aussies, but once again Hook fluffed the conversion. The Wallabies turned their attention to getting the scoreboard ticking and while Wales still hoped for redemption, James O’Connor had slotted two penalties and Berrick Barnes grabbed a drop to put them 16-8 up.
The Welsh got desperate, and tried to attack from deep, often looking less measured and controlled and more frantic as the game went on.
The Australians simply made their tackles and waited, with O’Connor almost finishing off the game with seven minutes to go as he received the ball from a turnover, which ended up in Adam Ashley-Cooper’s hands and heading for the tryline. Only a desperate tackle by Welsh winger George North saved the try as he knocked it out of the Wallaby’s hands.
But the hope didn’t last long. The Wallabies attacked again and this time found a tired Welsh defence, with No 8 Ben McCalman finding an open tryline after four phases of attack.
The Welsh left with their pride intact, as Leigh Halfpenny managed to score a consolation try -- one that came after almost five minutes of play and 34 phases of possession -- to allow them to leave with their heads held high.
Not a great game by the ages, but Bronze for the Wallabies will sound much better than losing semifinalists.
Australia - Tries: Berrick Barnes, Ben McCalman. Conversion: James O`Connor. Penalties: O`Connor (2). drop goal: Barnes.
Wales - Tries: Shane Williams, Leigh Halfpenny. Conversion: Stephen Jones. Penalties: James Hook, Jones.