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Wales advance to World Cup quarter-finals in style

25 Sep 2023 10 minute read
Wales’ Gareth Anscombe scores a drop goal against Australia. Photo Andrew Matthews/PA Wire

Simon Thomas

There have been some pretty dark Monday mornings in Welsh rugby over the past couple of years, amid a succession of wretched weekends.

But, today, the sun is peeking through the clouds and people will have headed to work with smiles on their faces with the collective mood of the nation having received a huge lift.

There had been anxiety and a real nervousness going into last night’s huge World Cup clash with Australia in the French city of Lyon.

People had been hoping and praying for a Welsh win, but the general feeling was this was a game on a knife-edge, one that could go either way.

The bookies are usually pretty good judges and they couldn’t call it. They had it all square in terms of the pre-match odds.

Even those fans who believed Wales would do it were going for a narrow win, by one score in the main.

For the record, that was my prediction too.

Well, shows what I know! At least I wasn’t alone, because no-one, simply no-one saw this scoreline coming.

Oh yes, the scoreline. Let’s just remind ourselves – Wales 40, Australia 6. It looks even better the morning after the night before.

It’s all the more startling as matches between these two countries have generally been such tight affairs over the past two decades, with just a couple of points in it either way.

Demolition

But this time it was a demolition, as Wales recorded their biggest ever win in the 46-match series.

It was as comprehensive a victory and as close to a flawless display as you could wish to see.

In attack, they clinically built the points, either through tries or the boot. In defence, they produced an immense rearguard action, simply refusing to allow the Wallabies to cross their line. On top of that, they were dominant at the set piece and conceded just nine penalties, while they controlled the game masterfully from half-back.

In summary, they outplayed their opponents in every facet as they booked a place in the quarter-finals with a group game to spare.

It was professional, it was assured and it was damn impressive.

On reflection, it’s probably the most complete performance Wales have produced since the Grand Slam-clinching victory over Ireland in Cardiff back in 2019.

So it’s fitting that there should have been real distinct echoes of that game.

It was a chip over the top from Gareth Anscombe – to create a try for centre Hadleigh Parkes – that set things in motion in that 25-7 win over the Irish.

Four years on and it was same again, just with a different 12, as Anscombe’s delightful dink enabled Nick Tompkins to pounce for the score that put Wales 26-6 up and pretty much out of sight.

Wales’ Nick Tompkins scores. Photo Andrew Matthews/PA Wire

There were other echoes too in terms of the way the men in red just kept the scoreboard ticking over and built a lead, repeatedly coming away with points from their excursions into enemy territory.

The expectation had been that if anyone was going to do that it would be Dan Biggar, but instead it was to be Anscombe who took on the role as he racked up 23 points to bring back memories of the 20 he scored against Ireland in that 2019 Slam sealer.

It really was a special night for the 32-year-old and one that would have meant all the more after everything he has been through.

He missed the last World Cup due to a calamitous knee injury which was to keep him out of the game for two years and he feared history was going to repeat itself when he damaged his thumb during July’s training camp in Turkey.

That left him in a cast and unable to feature in any of the warm-up matches, but Warren Gatland showed his faith by first finding a place for him in the squad for France and then naming him on the bench as fly-half cover for last night’s pivotal pool showdown.

It was a faith Anscombe repaid and how after coming on as a 12th minute replacement for the crocked Biggar.

What was particularly impressive was the way he shook off the disappointment of striking an upright with his first shot at goal.

Far from letting his head drop, he stepped up to the mark again just a couple of minutes later and slotted a tougher penalty.

With that, he was away and he was to land eight kicks in all, including a drop goal that summed up both his decision making and his execution, as he realised an attack wasn’t making much headway so opted to take the points and then go again.

Add in that visionary chip for Tompkins’ try, amid a succession of pinpoint kicks out of hand, and it was some performance, as he brought all his experience and undoubted class to bear on proceedings.

Triumph

Then, alongside him, you had another tale of triumph over adversity in the shape of Gareth Davies. The Scarlets scrum-half slipped out of the international reckoning during the latter part of Wayne Pivac’s tenure and thought of “giving the game away” to quote Gatland.

But instead he knuckled down, redoubled his efforts and earned a recall through his outstanding second half to last season. Now he is re-established as first choice and last night delivered one of the finest displays of his 71-cap career.

He began with a bang, producing one of his trademark support lines to pocket an inside scoring pass from Jac Morgan, taking his tally of World Cup tries to a remarkable eight.

Gareth Davies on his way to score Wales’ first try of the game. Photo Andrew Matthews/PA Wire

From that point on, he barely put a foot wrong. He rolled back the years to the last World Cup with the way he shot up in defence, slicing down Wallabies before they knew what had hit them and pulling off an interception that brought back memories of his long-range try against the same opponents in Japan in 2019.

But what really stood out was his game management, as he put together a catalogue of quality kicks to keep Wales going forward, with box bombs for his willing runners to chase and a variety of raking touch finders.

Turning elsewhere, Adam Beard answered his critics as he marked his 50th cap in fine fashion, putting in 14 tackles, bossing the mauls and making the calls for a near immaculate lineout.

Together with the both physical and athletic Will Rowlands, he gave Wales an engine room that purred away to good effect, with the leaping Aaron Wainwright aiding and abetting the lineout excellence.

The starting front row of Gareth Thomas, Ryan Elias and Tomas Francis also deserve a big mention as they all put in a huge 66 minute shift – a much longer stint than you normally see.

They weren’t fazed by being pinged at a couple of early scrums, rather they simply regrouped and steadily got on top, earning a succession of penalties that either delivered position or points, while Elias’ throwing in was right on the money.

In the centre, the Nick Tompkins-George North partnership is looking increasingly potent, with Tompkins’ deft hands putting his midfield pal into the kind of gaps where he can do real damage, as 45 metres made from nine carries demonstrates.

At No 8, Taulupe Faletau is getting better and better with every successive game he plays following his injury lay-off. He hoovered up restart after restart, while his footwork consistently got him over the gainline. A world class player on the world stage.

And then there’s the skipper. At one point during ITV’s coverage, match commentator Nick Mullins declared: “Is there nothing Jac Morgan can’t do?”

It’s a fair question as this was another consummate all-round display from the flanker.

In attack, he set the tone by bursting away after taking an inside ball from Tompkins off a first-phase attack straight from the training ground, before giving the scoring pass to Gareth Davies despite losing his footing.

That came just two minutes into the game and to round things off he claimed a try of his own two minutes from the end as he touched down courtesy of a fast moving lineout drive.

He was just as effective on the other side of the ball, leading by example amid a colossal defensive effort, topping the tackle count with 16.

Defiant right to the end, his last act was to turn Suliasi Vunivalu onto his back and hold him up over the line in the final play. It was a moment that summed up Wales’ obstinate determination not to let the Wallabies score.

Yet perhaps his most decisive intervention of all came with the boot.

It had been a pretty even contest for the first 25 minutes and the Aussies had actually had the lion’s share of possession. They then had the chance to cut the deficit to 10-9 when they were awarded a penalty in front of the posts.

Surprisingly, they opted to turn down the easy kick at goal and go for the corner in search of more. It was a decision that was to backfire badly – thanks to Morgan.

Gleefully pouching an overthrow at the back of the resulting lineout, the openside once again showed off his kicking ability just as he had in setting up Louis Rees-Zammit’s try against Portugal.

This time, rather than a cross-kick, it was a remarkable 50-22 he pulled off – or a 22-22 to be more precise – provoking Mullins’ admiring query.

It was a huge momentum shifter in the game, with Wales taking control for the remainder of the half and Anscombe slotting two more penalties to make it 16-6 at the interval.

Then, after the break, their dominance was to be absolute.

While there are numerous individuals worthy of praise, everyone contributed from 1 to 23. This was a team performance and a magnificent one at that.

So it’s job done in style. Wales are through to the quarter-finals and they look likely to progress as group winners with a last pool match against Georgia to come after a much deserved break.

That would then see them face the runners-up from Pool D in Marseille in the last eight on October 14 – most probably Argentina, unless Japan or Samoa can pull off a surprise.

The Pumas are a decent side and no-one in the camp will be getting carried away, but a route is now opening up for Warren Gatland to take Wales through to a World Cup semi-final for a third time – which would be some achievement.

And it’s safe to say that’s a prospect which would have made the Monday morning commute much more enjoyable than usual.


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