by Tom Pritchard
AN EXCELLENT first-half display from Wales proved to be enough as they held off an inspired fightback from Australia to take control of Pool D.
Warren Gatland’s side led 23-8 at half-time, but the Wallabies came back hard and, at one stage, looked as if they were going to snatch a dramatic victory.
Wales’ thorough preparation has been well-documented, and it was their fitness and composure which helped see them over the line in an energy-sapping game in Tokyo.
Captain Alun Wyn Jones led from the front as he broke Gethin Jenkins’ record for most Welsh caps, and his 130th appearance will surely be one of his fondest.
Wales made a fast start, with Dan Biggar kicking the fastest drop goal in Rugby World Cup history after just 35 seconds.
Centre Hadleigh Parkes – playing with a fracture in his hand – did brilliantly to beat the imposing Marika Koroibeti in the air to grasp Biggar’s cross-field kick and touch down for the first score.
The Wallabies responded in kind with their first visit to Wales’ 22. Veteran wing Adam Ashley-Cooper clutched a diagonal kick before recovering to dive over and become Australia’s oldest World Cup try-scorer at 35 years, 6 months and 2 days.
Australia’s skipper, Michael Hooper, was perhaps fortunate not to see yellow for a late challenge on Biggar. The flanker lead with his shoulder, and had time to withdraw after the ball was kicked away.
Biggar, playing in his second World Cup, started the game well and made a vital intervention to stop Samu Kerevi’s powerful run down the left wing, dislodging the ball and preventing an almost certain try.
The fly-half injured himself in the process, however, and went off for a head injury assessment. He was deemed unfit to return to the field, with Scarlets stand-off Rhys Patchell replacing him.
There was more controversy not long after when Samu Kerevi, the 17-stone centre, was penalised for leading with his forearm into the tackle of Patchell.
After deciding that the initial contact was to the chest, before rising up, referee Romain Poite decided to keep his cards in his pocket.
Gareth Davies – who was named man of the match for his all-action display – showed his predatory instincts to intercept Aussie scrum-half Will Genia’s pass to race clear and put Wales in a commanding position.
Wales’ lead of 15 points at the break was merited by their performance, one with plenty of physicality, tactical nous and clarity in the key moments.
Gatland’s side knew that a quick start after the break would put them in a strong position, and a drop-goal from the impressive Patchell extended their lead.
Australia’s big ball-carriers began to come to the fore in the early stages of the second-half, as they began to punch holes in the Welsh defence.
Michael Cheika’s men got themselves back into the game when full-back Dane Haylett-Petty, the replacement for the suspended Reece Hodge, dived over after clever play from Pocock created the space for him to score.
Matt Toomua, the Melbourne Rebel, made a considerable impact after coming off the bench as the Wallabies began to fight back hard and close the gap, with the omnipotent Hooper forcing his way over from close range to reduce the deficit further.
A To’omua penalty after Wales were penalised for wheeling the scrum made it a one-point game as the last 10 minutes approached.
Wales received some welcome respite with a spell in Australia’s half, and a penalty from a line-out infringement allowed Patchell to restore the lead to four once more.
The script looked like it was going to rewrite itself once more when the Aussies won a scrum penalty and kicked upfield. However, an incredible display of athleticism from scrum-half Tomos Williams kept the ball in play; denying Australia the chance to set up a dangerous attacking position.
Liam Williams came up with the match-winning moment when he turned the ball over on the floor with Australia inside Wales’ 22, allowing his team to close the game out and secure a famous win in the Japanese capital.
Wales are next in action when they play Fiji at the Oita Stadium on October 9.