Wales identified the need to work on the athleticism and dexterity of their tight five after their summer whitewash by New Zealand. They involved their four regions to raise the general skill level of the national squad but a 12th successive reverse to Australia, and their second heaviest home defeat by the Wallabies, showed they remain more comfortable manhandling than ball-handling.
Wales used nine tight-five forwards on Saturday and they carried the ball between them for a total of eight metres compared with their opponents’ 76. They have won only three of their last 12 internationals and in their most difficult period for nine years they are having to make do without their head coach, Warren Gatland, who is on sabbatical with the Lions.
They were without a core of experienced players against Australia, including the centre Jonathan Davies who was a late withdrawal with a hamstring injury, and they badly missed Sam Warburton at the breakdown where the Wallabies were able to recycle possession quickly in a one-sided first half, but they are trying to alter their approach from their confrontational, physical style that was successful, in Europe at least, for the first five years of Gatland’s tenure with largely the same group of players.
The fly-half Sam Davies made a difference when, with the game long lost, he came on for his international debut 16 minutes from the end, attacking the line and putting support players into space. Australia had until then dealt so comfortably with Wales’ direct running and high kicking that the centre Jamie Roberts, for years his side’s most effective carrier, had no influence on events.
Rob Howley, Wales’ interim head coach, faces some hard thinking before Saturday’s encounter with Argentina in Cardiff, a side just as adept in possession as Australia and stronger in the set pieces. He defended his players, pointing out it was their first international since the summer against battle-hardened opponents (they have not won their opening autumn international since 2002) and that they rallied after the interval, but there was no hiding Wales’ structural decay.
They are fighting battles with outdated weaponry. Howley will make changes for the Pumas, not least because Warburton is available again after playing 80 minutes for Cardiff Blues on Saturday and the scrum-half Rhys Webb suffered ankle ligament damage, but he has to consider more fundamental moves, especially behind.
Liam Williams’ thrust was missed at full-back where Leigh Halfpenny, who is feeling his way back after a knee injury, does not offer the same counterattacking threat; Scott Williams is a creative alternative to Roberts at inside-centre, Hallam Amos is a more alert wing than Alex Cuthbert and at fly-half Dan Biggar, who is reluctant to attack the line, preferring to stand deeper and either kick or pass to a runner who has to take contact, is more suited to Wales’ old style of play.
Wales will take the evolutionary rather than revolutionary road but they are struggling to sell tickets for the Argentina match having attracted a crowd of less than 56,000 for the Wallabies, many of whom left long before the end having watched the opposition provide the wit and invention. The Australia No10, Bernard Foley, was named man of the match having confounded a defence that has now conceded 26 tries in five Tests.
Australia knew how to beat Wales, matching them physically and moving the ball with alacrity, turning the home side’s big wings, and while they will have more demanding afternoons on their five-Test tour, fatigue looks their biggest threat. “We have had to put up with a lot of external noise this year but we have shown resilience and character,” said Foley. “I hope we are setting the platform for future success.”
Wales Halfpenny; North (Amos, 60), S Williams, Roberts, Cuthbert; Biggar (S Davies, 63), Webb (G Davies, 64); Jenkins (capt; Smith, 58), Owens (Baldwin, 58), Lee (Francis, 58), B Davies (Hill, 62), Charteris, Lydiate (King, 68), Tipuric, Moriarty.
Try S Williams Pen Halfpenny.
Sin bin Biggar 15.
Australia Folau; Haylett-Petty, Kuridrani, Hodge, Speight (Naivalu, 77); Foley (Cooper, 77), Phipps (Frisby, 66); Sio (Slipper, 67), Moore (Latu, 77), Kepu (Ala’alatoa, 62), Arnold (Simmons, 62), Coleman, Pocock (Fardy, h-t), Hooper, Timani.
Tries Moore, Hodge, Kuridrani, Foley, Haylett-Petty. Cons Foley 2 Pen Foley.
Referee C Joubert (South Africa) Attendance 55,776.