Australian rugby has had its bleak days and nights but nothing remotely as bad as this. If congratulations are clearly due to Warren Gatland’s Wales for inflicting a record all-time defeat on the Wallabies, this was Eddie Jones’s absolute worst nightmare. His squad are now staring at an embarrassingly early exit from the tournament, having never previously failed to qualify for the knockout stages at a World Cup.
When Jones was rehired in January at vast expense, having lost his job with England, it was not supposed to end like this. If defeat to Fiji was bad this was infinitely worse, with his side barely firing a shot. If the 63-year-old’s appointment was supposed to breathe fresh life into the Wallaby squad, it is increasingly having the opposite effect.
This pallid performance will go down like a bag of decomposing maggots back in Australian rugby and loud boos rang around the stadium whenever Jones appeared on the big screen. If he survives as head coach beyond this World Cup it will be a major turn-up and neither he nor his outclassed team could have any complaints about this outcome. If Fiji manage a bonus-point win over Georgia in Bordeaux on Saturday, Australia will be out of the competition before their final game, against Portugal next Sunday.
Wales, though, still had to seal the deal and duly did so through tries from Gareth Davies, Nick Tompkins and Jac Morgan and the boot of Gareth Anscombe, on as an early replacement for the injured Dan Biggar. By the end Anscombe had racked up 23 points on his own and Wales were out of sight, on course for a quarter-final against, potentially, Argentina. Morgan’s late score, driven over by his pack, was the clearest possible sign of Welsh supremacy and summed up a totally one-sided contest.
Gatland, his staff and his players deserve huge credit for lifting Wales out of the deep hole they were in last winter. Jones, as he later acknowledged at a tense media conference, has had conspicuously less joy. Australia is a vast land but even in the dustiest, most remote corner of the outback it is common knowledge Jones was brought back by Rugby Australia for his big tournament expertise and motivational ability. In many ways, this was exactly the occasion they had in mind but no one envisaged this kind of scoreline.
Not everything can be laid at Jones’s door but it was his decision to axe experienced campaigners such as Michael Hooper and Quade Cooper and pick a more youthful squad. It has been a transparent flop and the treatment of his young playmaker Carter Gordon, picked as the first-choice fly-half only to be summarily discarded, perfectly sums up the uncertainty that has now taken hold in the Australia dressing room. Wallaby fans, and Jones’s employers, are fully entitled to ask some serious, pointed questions.
Wales did not have to play remotely like world-beaters to defeat a team who looked resigned to their fate from an early stage.
If the quality of the game never remotely approached the stunning Ireland v South Africa game on Saturday night, the Welsh gameplan was perfect for the occasion and there was an air of composure about them from an early stage. The first lineout certainly went to plan, a slick first-phase move straight off the training ground releasing Morgan down the middle of the field and setting up the pacy scrum-half Davies for his latest high-profile World Cup score.
It was the worst possible start for the Wallabies. Their games against Wales have invariably been close and they did not want to spend a clear, still night playing catch-up. The fates were about to intervene, however, with the influential Biggar forced out of the contest after 12 minutes with a strained pectoral muscle. The red-shirted sections of the crowd fell momentarily silent as they pondered the potential implications.
Two Ben Donaldson penalties offered the Wallabies further encouragement so it was a relief for all concerned with Wales when Anscombe, having missed a straightforward first kick, slotted a harder one on the angle to put his side 10-6 ahead at the start of the second quarter.
Australia did enjoy brief joy in the scrums but, as the pace of the game dropped, Wales continued to build scoreboard pressure. Anscombe landed a third penalty just before the half-hour mark and when Rob Valetini dived on a ball that the referee, Wayne Barnes, ruled had not fully emerged from a ruck the gap widened further. Louis Rees-Zammit nearly extended the 16-6 lead before being held up over the Australia line but Wales were still very much in the box seat at the interval.
Any doubt about the outcome pretty much evaporated in the third quarter as the Wallabies’ confidence ebbed away completely. Anscombe clipped over another penalty and then created a 49th-minute try for the alert Tompkins with a little chip over the top. Anscombe’s fifth penalty three minutes later tightened the screw even further.
It was turning into an unmitigated disaster as more Australian ill discipline offered Anscombe yet more ammunition. No wonder Jones has apparently been talking to Japanese officials on the quiet, although he later insisted he was still committed to the Australian cause. After this, however, his days as coach must surely be numbered. England’s decision to part company with him before Christmas last year is also starting to look better by the day.