A sharp start to the season, this, and a defeat that stung like the autumn weather. Australia had lost seven of the 10 games they had played this season, three to England, three to New Zealand, another to South Africa. There was a thought that they were weaker than they had been in a while but the Wallabies poured cold water all over it. They have now won their last 12 Tests against Wales, a run started way back in 2008. It already felt like Wales had lost to them in pretty much every which way a team can; undone by penalties, drop goals, and tries in the final minutes, beaten in both tight kicking contests and free-scoring try-fests. But none of the previous 11 defeats were quite like this one.
Wales were utterly outplayed and lucky, in the end, to lose by only 24. The game was pretty much up at half-time. At that point Australia were leading by 17 and could have been many more ahead if they had only been a little more clinical with their finishing. Australia are a conundrum Wales just cannot seem to solve and they have never looked further from figuring it out than they did here, where they did not even seem to understand the question, much less approach an answer. It was the final quarter before something like a competition broke out. But then wing Dane Haylett-Petty scored Australia’s fifth try, sprinting in after sweeping up a loose pass on the halfway line.
Despite the best efforts of the Welsh Rugby Union, who laid on a firework show before the start, the atmosphere had been unusually flat throughout. But then for 60 minutes the crowd had precious little to cheer. They roused themselves into a chant when Scott Williams scored their only try, chasing his own grubber kick to the try-line after a good break and even better underhand offload by Hallam Amos. But by time Haylett-Petty dived over the line, thousands had turned their backs and started to walk out. Beating the rush seemed a better idea than enduring any more of the match.
Wales showed more wit and skill in that one passage of play by Amos, Webb, and Williams than they did in the entire first half. There are some telling stats for those first 40 minutes: Australia made 90 carries for 400m between them, Wales 30 carries for 30m. Australia had 70% of the possession, and 80% of the territory. One-sided doesn’t cover it. Wales only made two trips into the Australian half, both forays ending in penalty shots at goal, one of which Leigh Halfpenny kicked, the other he missed. Otherwise, they were always back in their own ground, scrambling around trying to patch the gaps in their defence, throwing themselves after all those onrushing Australian runners tearing through their line.
Foley was superb, the man of the match. He played the Welsh for fools, made them look like rubes. It was as though he was flicking the ball back and forth underneath three upturned cups. Around him, Australia’s backs, brilliantly orchestrated by their attack coach, Stephen Larkham, drew the Welsh in with dummy runs and decoy lines, while Foley spat the ball this way and that. Wherever the tacklers were, the ball was not. It had already shifted some place else along the line. Australia should have scored three more. They had two good chances while Dan Biggar was in the sin-bin, one missed when Haylett-Petty knocked on with the line wide open in front of him, another cut short when Halfpenny put in a bone-rattling tackle on Reece Hodge.
Wales somehow held themselves together while Biggar was off but as soon as he came back they broke open. Foley’s inside pass put Hodge through on a sharp angle and he then swapped a simple one-two with Israel Folau on the way to the try-line. Tevita Kuridrani scored a third when George North got himself in a tangle backtracking between two oncoming runners. Befuddled by Kuridrani’s dummy, he picked the wrong man to tackle. And Foley himself finished the fourth after a turnover, the try made by a swift pass by the giant lock Adam Coleman. Wales were reeling.
They were without Sam Warburton, Taulupe Faletau, and Alun Wyn Jones, as well, of course, as Warren Gatland, who is on sabbatical in the run-up to the Lions tour. It showed. They looked listless and lacked leadership. Until Amos came on for North, they were blunt and bleary, as if caught short by the intensity of the match. Australia, hardened by their recent games in the Rugby Championship, were in a higher gear. Wales have an inexplicably poor record against the southern hemisphere teams for a side who have been so consistently competitive in the Six Nations. Before the match Martyn Williams suggested it was “a mental thing”. In this match their problems were simpler than that.
As for Australia, it feels as if they have been underestimated up here in Europe. On the morning of the match their head coach, Michael Cheika, was warned by his old Randwick team-mate Glen Ella that he was “skating on thin ice” because “as the old saying goes, you are only as good as your last game”. By that measure, Cheika’s doing just fine. They look to be in ominously good form at the start of this brutal tour. They play Scotland next week, then France, Ireland, and England. Seems unlikely any of the papers round these parts will be running cartoons of him dressed as a clown this winter.