Wales lose to Australia with final kick of the game
Too much. The north suffered a second agonising defeat in Melbourne, even more painful than the first. Wales were denied the win on southern hemisphere soil that they had so desperately craved by a penalty from the substitute Mike Harris with the last kick of the game. The Welsh could not bear to look as Harris lined up an angled shot of some 35 metres, but their worst fears were confirmed as the kick sailed over. And so the series was lost to boot.
Like Ireland earlier in the day, Wales were beaten by refereeing decisions, the final one decreeing that they had pulled down the first driving maul that Australia had managed to get going all night. Some might have given it, some might not. Chris Pollock did, and now Welsh hearts must yearn on. But a more brutal assessment may be to condemn them as naive. With a minute left on the clock, and pressure on the Australian back three, who were trying to run the ball out of their 22, the game should never have been lost. But over-vigorous rucking conceded a penalty, and from that position Australia had one more shot. The record will show that the southern hemisphere giants will more likely take such offerings than not.
What a game it had been, though, settling after a lively first half into a kicking duel between Leigh Halfpenny and Berrick Barnes. Both men rose to the challenge magnificently, and after Jonathan Davies’s breakaway try at the start of the second half had re-established a lead Wales had enjoyed for most of the first, the lead changed hands with each successful kick at goal. It was like a sick game of musical chairs, and when the music stopped it happened to be Australia in the chair.
The time has passed for Wales to take heart from any platitudes relating to improved performances or jolly good shows, but they did play well, and it would not be hard to argue that they deserved an even break and thus the win. Certainly, the series would have deserved it. But their lineout malfunctioned in the first half, and although the defence was superb throughout they lacked a dominant figure in the half-backs to take the game away when it was there to be taken.
“We were quite clinical when we had the ball and took our opportunities,” said the Wales caretaker coach Rob Howley. “but we just gave them one too many opportunities to get that kick at goal with discipline in certain areas.
It had all started so promisingly. Where Australia had burst out of the traps last week, this time it was Wales’s turn to start at a gallop. Not surprising, as the bounce-back of a side coming off a sobering defeat is a reliable expectation, as Ireland had shown earlier in the day. Wales had a point to prove, too, after they had failed to live up to expectation in the first Test, and they duly delivered in the third minute, when a short lineout set up a series of drives finished by George North from close range with the game’s first try.
But Wales’s defeat last week had not been as stinging as New Zealand’s, and their dazzling start was quicker to fade. Australia dominated the rest of the first half, their heavy-duty carriers testing the famed Welsh defence. For the most part, the defenders held up admirably – few sides in the world can withstand Australia going through 10 or more phases, but Wales were doing it with some comfort.
If only their lineout were as solid, but Matthew Rees missed his man three times, all of them in precious attacking positions, and so Wales were back to defensive duties. Berrick Barnes chipped away at the early lead with penalties in the 20th and 30th minutes, before he finally found a way through the Welsh defence just before half-time. A slick lineout – take note, Wales – led to Barnes surging between Sam Warburton and the debutant Ashley Beck. Rob Horne was on his shoulder for the try that finally gave the Aussies the lead at 13-7 going into half-time.
Early in the second half, though, Will Genia, of all people, threw out a pass to no one, and Beck hacked on. Jonathan Davies showed exceptional composure to kick it on again at high speed and to control the bouncing ball for a try that wrested the game back into the balance. There it stayed for the remainder. Halfpenny’s goal-kicking continues to amaze with its length and accuracy, all the more so when he was taken out in the air by Cooper Vuna on the hour. Vuna was sent to the sin-bin, Halfpenny required lengthy treatment, but the Wales full-back picked himself up to whack over the subsequent penalty from not far short of halfway.
Barnes, too, was heroic, but after a scandalous penalty against Wales at a scrum, he missed for the one and only time. But there was a reason. He had been struggling with an injury and was immediately substituted with six minutes to go. That paved the way for Harris, Australia’s fifth-choice fly-half to step into the limelight. Australians, even fifth-choice ones, rarely pass up on such an invitation.
“In international rugby there’s a fine margin between winning and losing,” added Howley. “For 79 minutes and 20 seconds we’ve done a lot right.”
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