Wales overcame a resurgent Australia in an utterly enthralling encounter in Tokyo to secure one of their greatest Rugby World Cup victories.
In a breathless start to the match, Wales burst out of the blocks to lead 10-0 thanks to Hadleigh Parkes’ try and Dan Biggar’s measured kicking. Australia fought back with a try of their own from a cross-field kick as Adam Ashley-Cooper touched down, but then Gareth Davies intercepted a pass from Will Genia before sprinting clear to give Wales a 23-8 half-time lead. Dane Haylett-Petty’s try early in the second half renewed Australia hope and brought to Wales minds a foreboding sense of history repeating against a team who had beaten them agonisingly on so many occasions.
Those fears deepened as Michael Hooper drove over from close range and Matt Toomua kicked a penalty to reduce the Wallabies’ deficit to 26-25, only for replacement Rhys Patchell to kick his third penalty to restore Wales’ lead to four points. Warren Gatland’s side effectively had to navigate the final few moments with 14 men as full-back Liam Williams soldiered on with an injury, but they dug in admirably to record a famous victory. With two wins from two, Wales are now in pole position to finish top of Pool D and earn a potentially more favourable draw in the knockout stages.
Given the high stakes and the enduring rivalry the two sides had developed over the past decade, this fixture was among the most hotly anticipated of the pool stage. It lived up to the hype – and then some – as both teams contributed to an absorbing, emotionally draining spectacle. Wales fans had travelled in their thousands to Tokyo, but they were outnumbered by vast swathes of yellow shirts to such an extent that this felt like a home fixture for Australia before kick-off. Wales fed on the electric atmosphere as they made a blistering start, back-row dynamo Aaron Wainwright counter-rucking brilliantly to give Biggar the opportunity to put Wales ahead with a drop-goal after less than a minute.
Gatland’s side maintained the furious pace as their forwards competed ferociously at the breakdown with Australia’s masters of that particular area, Hooper and David Pocock. Playing with penalty advantage, Biggar lofted a cross-field kick to the right wing and Parkes rose above Marika Koroibete to grab the ball and touch down for the opening try. Australia put the brakes on the Wales charge when Bernard Foley found Ashley-Cooper with a cross-kick, but it was the men in red who had the final say of the half as Davies latched on to Genia’s pass and sped away to give Wales their largest half-time advantage over the Wallabies.
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Even with a 15-point cushion, however, Wales knew they could take nothing for granted against their old foes. This has been a fixture which has brought heartbreak for Wales in most recent years, usually by tortuously narrow margins. Between 2008 and 2018, they suffered 13 successive defeats against the Wallabies, with only two of those losses by more than nine points. Last November, however, they arrested that rut with a gritty 9-6 victory in Cardiff. That was a cathartic moment for Wales, and in Tokyo they played with a freedom that suggested they had thrown away the shackles that seemed to weigh them down over the course of that decade-long losing run.
In Wainwright, Wales had a 22-year-old who had never lost against Australia and a player who announced himself as one of the emerging stars of this World Cup with a remarkable display of hard tackling, powerful carrying and disruptive work at the breakdown. In Biggar, they had a player who had helped them secure victory against the Wallabies last year and who started this match imperiously, kicking at goal with his usual composure, setting up Parkes’ try and defending bravely. He did so to a fault, injuring himself as he tackled the destructive Samu Kerevi. Biggar’s replacement, Rhys Patchell – another who had never lost to Australia – rose to the challenge with a fearless performance, particularly with the boot.
But like a recurring nightmare, back came Australia.
They started the second half superbly, dominating possession and territory as they pinned Wales back on their own try line. Haylett-Petty was the benefactor of one particularly flowing sequence of phases, scoring from Pocock’s offload. After another series of drives set the platform for Hooper to burrow over for Australia’s third try, replacement Toomua kicked a penalty to reduce Wales’ lead to 26-25. This was too much to take for Wales supporters, while it was a minor miracle that their players could hold their nerve in such draining circumstances. This was too much to take for Wales supporters, while it was a minor miracle that their players could hold their nerve in such draining circumstances.
But they did so magnificently, holding on to their lead for dear life to keep alive their hopes of winning a first World Cup.
Gareth Davies: The man who sets the pace for Wales’ line speed in defence was at his irresistible best, capping off an all-action display with a brilliant try.
Wales: L Williams; North, Jonathan Davies, Parkes (Watkin, 70), Adams; Biggar (Patchell, 28), G Davies (T Williams, 70); Wyn Jones (Smith, 49), Owens (Dee), Francis (Lewis, 63), Ball (Shingler, 63), Alun Wyn Jones (capt), Wainwright (Moriarty, 49), Tipuric, Navidi.
Replacements: Smith, Dee, Lewis, Shingler, Moriarty, T Williams, Patchell, Watkin.
Australia: Haylett-Petty; Ashley-Cooper (Beale, 48), O’Connor, Kerevi, Koroibete; Foley (To’omua, 45), Genia (White, 53); Sio (Slipper, 63), Latu (Uelese, 66), Alaalatoa (Kepu, 63), Rodda, Arnold (Coleman, 63), Pocock, Naisarani (Salakaia-Loto, 68), Hooper (capt).
Replacements: Uelese, Slipper, Kepu, Coleman, Salakaia-Loto, White, To’omua, Beale.
Referee: Romain Poite (France)
Assistant referees: Luke Pearce (England), Karl Dickson (England)
TMO: TMO Ben Skeen (New Zealand)