This is shaping up to be the World Cup of the underdog. Japan’s crowd-frenzy-inducing attempt to run Ireland off the park resulted not only in a historic win but a number 8 slot in the world rankings for the host nation. Then there was Uruguay’s total-team-play as they beat Fiji, a game to make South American hearts soar in which it was impossible to select a man of the match, such was the total commitment of the entire team.
Wales came into the Australia game at 12/1 in the bookies, lagging after 6/4 favourites New Zealand as well as England, South Africa and Ireland. This was a big, big game, not least for captain Alun Wyn Jones, gaining a record number of 130 caps and cementing his place in rugby legend. It was in truth the pool D decider, or, in defensive coach Shaun Edwards’s words ‘the game of their lives,’ knowing the dangers posed by players of the class of David Pocock and Michael Hooper in the mayhem of turnover ball.
Scarlets’ hooker Ken Owens won the most spirited rendition of the National Anthem award, belting out ‘Hen Wlad fy Nhadau’ like a poor man’s Pavarotti, the Welsh travelling fans joining him with gusto.
After the whistle Wales were out of the traps like whippets, winning the break down and allowing Dan Biggar to slot through a drop goal within mere seconds of the starting whistle. It was a nerve-settler, that’s for certain.
Wales got the early run of play. An early penalty, after a spirited Josh Adams run down the touch line, saw Biggar slice his kick left of the posts.
A deft interception by Davies and an outside break by Ken “The Sheriff” Owens almost released North for the line. It was good to see the 6ft 4 inch winger given more space and opportunity in this game, engaging the big man’s definite strike factor.
Ten minutes in, a collapsing scrum led to another Wales penalty, North getting his fourth charge forward. An Oz high tackle on Alun Wyn Jones led to a penalty, anticipated by a free shot by Biggar who kicked an inch perfect kick into the hands of Hadleigh Parkes for a put down. Wales 10, Australia 0 off the back of a confident passage of play.
This led to another drop goal attempt by Biggar, this time unsuccessfully. A late challenge shoulder charge by No 7, Michael Hooper led to another penalty for Wales which was handed to the Australians. Unperturbed, a maul held up by Wales led to a Welsh scrum, crunched back by a disruptive, powerful Australian pack.
Then thirty five year old Adam Ashley-Cooper claimed a cross-pitch ball to place it down for Australia’s first try, Foleigh missing the conversion.
Fly half Foley narrowed the margin to 10-8 to Wales with a penalty kick, Patchell replacing Biggar who went off for a head injury and soon slotting through a penalty in the 32nd minute.
A Kerevi forearm controversially crunching into Rhys Patchell’s chest led to rugby’s version of poetic justice and Patch penalty which bounced in happily off the post.
Then a necessary and brilliant moment. Gareth Davies intercepted a risky Will Genia pass to Foley, slipped into seventh, maybe eighth gear and left the entire Australian back line standing for a pre half time try, dutifully converted by the reliable boot of Patchell.
Half time. Wales 24. Australia 8. Typing simple numbers can be such a joy, not least after forty minutes when the Welsh backline had been on fire, as if their shirts had been dipped in petrol.
A Patchell drop goal at the three minute mark in the second half rewarded some early, determined Welsh pressure, countered when a deft offload from Pocock to Dane Haylett-Petty gifted him a try which Toomua turned into three points.
The Welsh defence line was by now written in red ink saying “You Shall Not Pass” even as Australia poured forward and spilled the ball for the tenth time in super humid conditions. But Australia found their mojo and started running with it.
Sustained pressure courtesy of try-line proximity penalties was finally rewarded when Michael Hooper evaded Navidi’s grasp for a try, converted for an extra three.
A tired Wales looked under siege as gold waves thundered forward, with big carries testing the defence. It was becoming Australia’s second half much as the first had been Wales’ and a penalty for Oz brought them within one point.
Fortuitously a Patchell penalty gave Wales a small points’ cushion, then a strong snatch of the ball by the Blues’ Tomos Williams sent Wales back the right way. A forward pass by Australia led to long winded scrum, dutifully exasperating the Australian pack. It was now down to Welsh grit and resolve and all fifteen men dug deep and found both in good measure.
Josh Adams brilliantly kept the ball in play after a botched Aussie penalty kick and the red defence line by now as solid as the Kremlin’s inner wall. Shaun Edwards might even have given a half smile as he watched them shore up the defence. The floodlights at the stadium serendipitously dipped, adding to the onfield drama.
Wales turned over the ball with less than a minute to go and Gareth Davies ran down the clock, intelligently feeding the ball back so the forwards could inch on towards the final hooter. Davies deservedly won the match of the match title for his sterling performance.
This was exhilarating, high-octane, end-to-end rugby in Tokyo, with Wales showing ample composure, especially in an edgy, thrilling second half which flowed mainly Australia’s way.
As BBC Sport Wales journalist Dafydd Pritchard tweeted after the game, ‘Can we all go and sit in a darkened room now?’ Maybe in a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps, Daf. There’ll certainly be some bruised bones and mangled muscles tomorrow morning.
It was, after all, real beta blocker stuff, in keeping with so many of the games in this World Cup. Wales will certainly be buoyed up by so many aspects of their performance, even as Australia claimed their losing bonus point.
But here’s finally to Alun Wyn Jones, who captained his team to the top of the pool. He accepted that his team had been a bit “tentative” in the second half, but as former Newport player and broadcaster Phil Steele put it ‘I think the amount of guts and passion shown were so great as to be mathematically unquantifiable.’
Yes, off the graph stuff – determination and conviction as well as good ole Welsh character on display in great measure. On this showing it’s a team that can seemingly go all the way and find a route to the final. Possibly, a quarter final against France is on the cards, especially as their progress through the stages is made a little easier after today’s clash. That’s if they win their remaining pool games against Fiji and Uruguay. It’s a good bet they do, if this team shows up. And keeps on showing up.