Planet Rugby

Tired Welsh let Australia off the hook

26th May 2007 12:52

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Stirling Motrlock

Stirling Mortlock: Kicked off his co-captaincy with a win

A last-gasp try from Stephen Hoiles helped Australia bounce back from an early 17-0 deficit to beat Wales as anticipated on Saturday, but John Connolly's new-look team made life mighty hard for themselves in the 29-23 win.

A less weary team than the Welsh would not have let Australia off though, and despite the win, Connolly will know that his team still has a lot to prove in the second Test next week.

What a finish! Once again the sound of the hooter produced the biggest drama of the match - a match that nearly produced an upset of exalting proportions for the Welsh and humiliating proportions for the Wallabies.

It nearly was the greatest Welsh victory in the Southern Hemisphere since Rorke's Drift. Written off and vilified since their arrival in Australia they stood up manfully and justified their existence and worthiness as international players.

When time was up the Welsh led. When the final whistle went the Wallabies had won. It was shattering.

The Welsh were defending like that Welch Regiment of old: manful, shoulder to shoulder, Men of Harlech in their throats. That day they won 11 VCs as the Zulus, exultant after victory at Islandhwana, flung themselves at the little garrison behind the biscuit tins. On this day, too, they found new energy and resolve to keep the Wallabies back in their own territory. With a little over a minute to play they led 23-22 and had a scrum in the Welsh half.

Jonathan Thomas played to replacement scrumhalf Gareth Cooper who grubbered down into the Wallaby 22. Julien Huxley fielded the ball and hoofed it low and hard and far. It rolled down into the Welsh 22 where Griffiths fielded it and kicked for touch, a poor clearing kick. The line-out was on the Wallaby left. They won it and went far right, as the hooter went to herald the end of the match. The Wallabies came back far left with inroads made by Matt Giteau and, tellingly, by Rocky Elsom. When they went far right Sam Norton-Knight threw a long, left-handed skip pass and there was replacement loose forward Stephen Hoiles to surge over in the corner for the try that won the match for the Wallabies.

At Rorke's Drift, one of the 11 VCs was Alfred Hook. At Telstra Stadium one of the 22 VCs was going to be James Hook, till that try on 80 minutes 26 seconds.

What, of course, this did was earn great credit for Wales and its rugby and sound a warning alarm to the South Hemisphere countries as they prepare to welcome lambs to the slaughter. These Welsh were not lambs.

The first half suggested that the Wallabies were going to win easily, except that the Welsh were the ones scoring the points - against the run of play but a heap of points. Before 20 minutes were played Wales led 17-0. The unthinkable looked possible.

At that stage the Wallabies were rejoicing in a cornucopia of possession, but they managed to turn it into Welsh tries as their hands let them down. It was significant that two left-hand passes by Norton-Knight helped in the scoring of Hoiles's try because it was left-handed passing that led to the two Welsh tries.

A clever kick by Drew Mitchell had settled the Wallabies into comfortable attack down on their left but then they came right and novice Norton-Knight threw a difficult - difficult not impossible - pass to Stirling Mortlock. It fell on the ground and Welsh left wing Chris Czekaj snapped it up and started running down the field. Wallabies closed in and he kicked ahead. Giteau could not control the ball. Hook snapped it up, weighed up his options and gave to captain Gareth Thomas who went over and eventually, helped by Gavin Thomas, scored his 38th Test try, breaking his own record in his record-breaking 93rd Test. Hook converted. That was some two minutes into the match.

The crowd of 40,872 settled back to watch the Wallabies attack. Mortlock hit the upright with a kickable penalty and their handling helped the Welsh to keep them at bay. But all the signs were that those seven points had been an aberration and the Wallabies were settling into winning. Norton-Knight through his third awkward left-hander and then Julien Huxley, up in the line, threw another, a long one in search of an overlap. It did not get to the overlap, for Jamie Robinson plucked it out of the air and set off downfield. Mitchell got close but Robinson stretched away from him in his 70-metre run to the posts. Again Hook converted. 14-0 after 15 minutes.

The Wallabies went on attacking but lost the ball in a turn-over. Lee Byrne took an inside pass from Jonathan Thomas and raced down the middle of the field. Mark Gerrard caught him but a penalty enabled Hook to make it 17-0 after 19 minutes.

Now it was uncomfortable for Wallaby supporters and now the Wallabies changed tack. No longer were they playing it wide. Now it was time for pick-n-drive. The Welsh contingent tackled. The Wallabies reached 13 phases and then Wycliff Palu, their main batterer, took a flipped pass from Matt Dunning and forced his way over in the right corner. 17-5 after 24 minutes.

The Wallaby camp let out some relieved breath.

Mitchell grubbered and chased and forced Byrne to run the ball out for a five-metre line-out to Australia. The line-out was a mess but it produced a try. Perhaps the mess disjointed the Welsh, but there was Nathan Sharpe bursting inside Robert Sidoli to score. Mortlock converted. 17-12.

Wales had their best concerted effort just after that when they ran from a line-out and Sonny Parker got a clever pass away in the half-gap but Wales yielded a turn-over and Huxley hoofed many metres downfield.

There was drama but also a lot of untidy play. The handling was shaky and we were back in the land of the messy scrums with resets, collapses and free kicks. Even when the ball managed to find a way out there was a mess.

After Huxley had misjudged a rolling kick and conceded a line-out five metres from his line, the Welsh had a promising attack. In fact their backs looked more likely to produce try-scoring breaks than the Wallabies did. The Wallabies relied on extra men, the Welsh on straightening and stepping. The Wallabies also had Giteau at scrum-half, a great footballer but guzzling space.

From a scrum the Welsh went wide and bashed at the Wallaby line. Gerrard was offside and Hook made the score 20-12 after 51 minutes.

The Wallabies attacked but there was nobody to clear at the tackle/ruck. Wales picked up but then threw the ball away. Giteau dived on it and the Wallabies were off attacking on their left where Giteau threw a dummy towards Palu and ran round behind the posts. 20-19, and the Wallabies were back on the attack. A penalty at a breakdown enabled Mortlock to put the Wallabies into the lead for the first time in the match, 22-20 after 61 minutes.

There were 19 minutes still to play.

From the kick-off after the penalty Wales got possession and attacked through many phases till Gareth Thomas tried a high diagonal towards the right and the Wallabies survived. Soon afterwards they yielded a penalty in front of their posts but Hook's kick hit the upright and stayed out.

There was a loud cheer in Telstra Stadium when George Gregan came on after 65 minutes. Giteau went to inside centre in the place of Adam Ashley-Cooper.

With eight minutes to play, from a scrum following the grossest of knock-ons by Gerrard, Hook sat back in a pocket and dropped a goal. Wales were ahead 23-22, where they stayed till that last dramatic minute or so.

Man of the Match: Probably the player who played most rugby was Matt Giteau.

Villain of the Match: There was none.

Moment of the Match: The final try by Stephen Hoiles.

The scorers:

For Australia:

Tries: Palu, Sharpe, Giteau, Hoiles

Cons: Mortlock 3

Pen: Mortlock

For Wales:

Tries: Gavin Thomas, Robinson

Cons: Hook 2

Pens: Hook 2

Drop goal: Hook

The Teams:

Australia: 15 Julian Huxley, 14 Mark Gerrard, 13 Stirling Mortlock (vice-captain), 12 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 11 Drew Mitchell, 10 Sam Norton-Knight, 9 Matt Giteau, 8 Wycliff Palu, 7 Phil Waugh (c), 6 Rocky Elsom, 5 Mark Chisholm, 4 Nathan Sharpe, 3 Guy Shepherdson, 2 Stephen Moore, 1 Matt Dunning.

Replacements: 16 Adam Freier, 17 Benn Robinson, 18 Dan Vickerman, 19 Stephen Hoiles, 20 George Smith (vice-captain), 21 George Gregan, 22 Scott Staniforth.

Wales: 15 Lee Byrne, 14 Gareth Thomas (c), 13 Jamie Robinson, 12 Sonny Parker, 11 Chris Czekaj, 10 James Hook, 9 Mike Phillips, 8 Jonathan Thomas, 7 Gavin Thomas, 6 Colin Charvis, 5 Rob Sidoli, 4 Brent Cockbain, 3 Adam Jones, 2 Matthew Rees, 1 Iestyn Thomas

Replacement: 16 Richard Hibbard, 17 Ceri Jones, 18 Michael Owen, 19 Scott Morgan, 20 Gareth Cooper, 21 Ceri Sweeney, 22 Gavin Henson

Referee: Jonathan Kaplan (South Africa)

Touch judges: Paul Honiss (New Zealand), Mark Lawrence (South Africa)

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