I had my doubts as to whether the Wallabies would be motivated enough to give their all to win third place at the RWC.
But those concerns were erased tonight after they defeated Wales 21–18 in a brutal war of attrition that showed plenty of character from a team down on its luck.
The Wallabies’ injury toll in this match was horrendous. There were no ‘substitutes’ from the bench tonight — all seven were replacements as a result of injury.
Most important, it looks like Quade Cooper might be out with an ACL injury for up to six months. He was on crutches after the match, having badly injured his knee when a step went wrong early in the first half. KB went off after 10 minutes with his hamstring gone again.
The Wallabies started the match with intensity and the first 15 minutes were played mostly in the Welsh half. All this pressure came to a head with a nice pass from QC to angle-runner Berrick Barnes, in the Welsh red zone, which led to a break between their centres. Berrick touched down between the posts and JO’C converted.
There was a change in tactics by the Wallabies in this match with a notable emphasis on expansive play. Even when Barnes replaced Cooper, the intent remained the same. They wanted to use their outside backs and before Cooper went off he was instrumental in setting the tone.
The treatment of a misfiring Quade Cooper in NZ has been disgraceful. ‘Hadlee’s a wanker’ wasn’t a great moment in Australian sport but that was back in the seventies and early eighties when the world was a completely different place.
Just because Cooper has given McCaw the odd touch-up (how embarrassing for Sir Richie — a five-eighth even) the locals give him stick at every opportunity. You’ve got to give credit to the guy, he’s taken it on the chin.
The Wallabies deserved this win alright. They looked dangerous with the ball on the occasions they were on attack and their defence was particularly strong, notwithstanding a couple of tries let in.
With so many replacements it’s not surprising that they lost a bit of shape. But this was a good old ding-dong Test match where everybody was prepared to put their body on the line. Because of the running options taken it all looked a bit looser than it actually was.
The Men of Harlech were fortuitous when Shane Williams scored a try in the 49th minute. Such was the trajectory of James Hook’s pass in that movement that it may have been they were playing gridiron, not rugby?
Why is it that Wayne Barnes has trouble with forward passes?
The Wallabies were the dominant team in the first half but in the second the Welsh fired up and fought back. They scored a late try right at the death (after 31 impressive phases) to bring some respectability to the score. But really, the Wallabies always looked to be in some sort of control.
Ben McCalman scored the final Wallaby try in the 74th minute to seal the match after good lead-up work by Luke Burgess (in his final Test), James Slipper and S. Faingaa.
Nathan Sharpe contributed significantly in his 45 minutes on the park in his 100th test, but actually spent most of the first half on one leg after he was dropped by his lifters at a lineout. He hobbled about for most of the half but eventually succumbed.
Berrick Barnes was named man of the match and controlled the game admirably from five-eighth after QC departed. The fact that he’s been stationed on the bench over recent weeks shows the folly of it.
I said it right from the beginning that he needed to be starting in the centres, and tonight proved what we’d been missing. His attacking capacity and generalship (not forgetting great defence) was superior to any seen so far, the complete package. He even slotted a neat little dropped goal in when it was needed.
Ben McCalman probably had his best international match to date and in combination with Scott Higginbotham and David Pocock was industrious and dominated the Welsh loose forward trio. The Faletau switch from no. 8 to no. 7 wasn’t really a success. Big Kev, James Slipper and JO’C also stood out.
The Wallaby scrum was the best its looked all tournament — even slightly dominant — shock, horror! Sure, Adam Jones wasn’t there but the Welsh pack are no mugs. The Wallabies put the pressure on and even had them heading south at times.
For the Taffs, big centre Jamie Roberts was kept well in check by Barnes and Rob Horne (who replaced KB), but their back three of Shane Williams, George North and Leigh Halfpenny were always dangerous on the fly. The Welsh lineout was 100% improved from their last outing against France.
James Hook had a pretty poor encounter for the Welsh and the injured Rhys Priestland was missed again. They seemed to lack a bit of direction.
Despite the injuries to QC, KB, Sharpie and the others, this was a good Wallabies win against a powerful Welsh lineup.
I thought we should have been a bit further ahead at halftime and was concerned about the number of turnovers in that first half. But hey, third is better than fourth and we’re ahead of 17 other teams in the tournament, so it’s not all bad news.
The highlight for me: I thought I saw El Dommo in the crowd, but I may have been mistaken….