Relief as Wales hold on to deny Wallabies in a Tokyo thriller

Gatland’s side wrestle Pool D initiative off Australia after surviving second-half scare

Australia 25 Wales 29

Australia coach Michael Cheika declared himself "embarrassed as a rugby player" after his team were penalised when their centre Samu Kerevi was adjudged to have led with his forearm during a first half attack that led to a dramatic shift on the scoreboard. It was the beginning of a startling sequence of play during which Wales manufactured a quick 10 points to give them a commanding lead which they would hold until the end, when the Australians laid siege in heavy heat and failing floodlights.

As a contest, this was another triumph for the tournament and a game that led more protests of confusion from the game’s leading coaches as to where the sport is going. But on the streets, the fans didn’t worry about that. They had been treated to a brilliant encounter and both get to fight on.

Forty-two minutes in: a face appears on the big screen in Tokyo stadium. He's wearing a peaked hat and is silent so he's practically incognito but everybody clocks him straight away. For the first and only time all night, Wales and Australia have a common cause. The crowd boos Eddie Jones with enthusiasm. He might be an Aussie but he's England coach here and all enmities are local. But after that, they returned to concentrate on a gripping battle in front of them.


The big cats of Pool D put on a thriller on a soupy Sunday afternoon in downtown Tokyo- it was just like Cardiff for a November Test, with perhaps a few more chopstick-devoured takeaways and the absence of Tom Jones, dapper and waving from the gilded section. The Welsh were outnumbered by the huge Australian contingent but in national tradition they made their voices count and came away with a classic Warren Gatland win based on opportunism and an obdurate defensive streak.

Still, Wales left it too close for comfort here. For the second time in 48 hours, a Celtic nation seemed to wilt after an hour in the punishing warmth. It took a fingertip intervention from Tomos Williams, who rose to keep a 77th minute Australian penalty from crossing the touchline deep in Wales 22, to end what had been a sustained barrage from Michael Cheika’s team.

Down 23-8 at half time, Australia engineered a revival after getting a turbo-charge through the arrival of replacement outhalf Matt To’omua. Australia stormed into contention with To’omua’s arrival: his early break shoved the Welsh men back to their own try line and David Pocock delivered a brilliant offload for Haylett-Petty to sail across the try line unimpeded.

When captain Michael Hooper crashed over after 62 minutes after battering the last line of defence, Wales were in a tight spot. But once again, their defensive solidity never deserted them. The imperious Alun Wyn Jones, in his 130th game for Wales, led the tackle count as Gatland's team held out and he remained on the field until the end as the key symbol of a granite-hewn era for Welsh rugby.

Again, the cross-field kick became the weapon of choice over the weekend.

Dan Biggar launched the first for Wales, for which Hadleight Parkes competed with Marika Koroibete, who had lost his coordinates and couldn't stop the midfielder from crashing over. That score, along with a neat drop-goal from Biggar after just 30 seconds gave the Welsh a 10-0 jump start. The Australians were camped deep in their 22 during this period, depending on two monumental poaches from David Pocock when the Welsh were threatening to consolidate their lead.

But at the other end of the field, Bernard Foley played a gorgeous kick for Adam Ashley-Cooper to lose cover and years as he accelerated towards the ball. Both scores were crowd pleasers. Wales lost Biggar in the 28th minute after he had halted a thrilling burst from the Australian backs, with Korobiete linking with James O'Connor and Haylett-Petty. When Samu Karevi found himself matched by Rory Arnold on the wing, he gave an audacious stutter step and was gone: Biggar flew in to make the covering tackle but left the field for a head injury assessment afterwards. He would not return. It didn't set Wales back: Rhys Patchell coolly slotted over a penalty awarded when Karevi attacked him with the elbow raised. After a lengthy examination and a discussion with Michael Hooper, Romain Poite decided that it was only a penalty.

Afterwards, Hooper said: “I can’t remember word for word my discussion but I said: I don’t know how to carry into a player. As a player, I am trying to carry into a tackle and he is using poor tackle technique. So I was just asking in the future what we could do to make sure that didn’t happen again.”

Cheika was more blunt, saying he simply didn’t understand the rules anymore and suggesting that the administrators were “spooking” the referees.”

Still, Australia conspired to make a bad situation worse after that penalty. From the restart, scrumhalf Gareth Davies read the pass of his opposite number, Will Genia, and dashed home from halfway for what must have been a sweet moment. Ahead 23-8, Gatland's team were in a terrific place.

Whatever comfort they felt evaporated in the second half. As against Georgia, they found themselves unable to build on their busy, imposing opening half but their mettle through that tense closing ten minutes was admirable.

"The pool is in our own destiny," a quietly pleased Gatland said later. "This team has grown up in terms of their game management, particularly over the autumn last year and the Six Nations. We have learned a lot from that, with guys coming in from the bench and a couple of key turnovers. It was pleasing for us. I thought our fitness levels were really good and we soaked up a lot of pressure."

Scoring Sequence: 1st min: Biggar drop goal 3-0; 13 mins: Parkes try 8-0, Biggar con 10-0; 20 mins: Ashley Cooper try 10-5, Foley con 10-5; 28 mins: Foley pen 10-8; 32 mins: Patchell pen 13-8; 27 mins: Patchell pen 16-8; Gareth Davies try 21-8, con Patchell 23-8; 44 mins: Patchell drop-goal 26-8; 46 mins Haylett-Petty try, Toomua con 26-15; 62 mins Hooper try 26-20; Toomua con 26-22; 68 mins; Toomua pen 26-24; 72 Patchell pen 29-25

AUSTRALIA: Dane Haylett-Petty; Adam Ashley-Cooper, James O'Connor, Samu Kerevi, Marika Koroibete; Bernard Foley, Will Genia; Scott Sio, Silatolu Latu, Allan Alaalatoa; Izack Rodda, Rory Arnold, David Pocock, Michael Hooper; Isi Naisarani. Replacements: 22 Matt Toomua for Foley (45 mins), Kurtley Beale for Ashely-Cooper (46 min), Nic White for Genia (53 mins), James Slipper for Sio (62 mins), Sekope Kepu for Alaalatoa (62 mins), Adam Coleman for R Arnold (63 mins), Jordan Uelese for Latu (65 mins), Lukhan Salakaia-Loto for Naisarani (69 mins).

WALES: Liam Willams; George North, Jonathan Davies, Hadleigh Parkes, Josh Adams; Dan Biggar, Gareth Davies; Wyn Jones, Ken Owens, Tomas Francis; Jake Ball, Alun Wyn Jones; Aaron Wainright, Justin Tipuric; Josh Navidi. Replacements: Reese Patchell for Biggar (23 mins), Nicky Smith for Jones (49 mins), Ross Moriarty for Aaron Wainright (49 mins), Dillon Lewis for Francis (62 mins), Tomos Williams for Davies (70 mins) Elliot Dee for Ken Owens (65 mins), Ross Moriarty for Parkes (70 mins), Aaron Shingler for Ball (70 mins).

Referee: Romain Poite (FRA).

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times