Australia played the beautiful game to send England tumbling out of the World Cup here but ugly was enough take them to their 11th consecutive victory over Wales and top place in the pool at Twickenham. It was a full-on contest between the two teams who were, by some way, the best in the pool but such were the physical demands it placed on the players that neither side is likely to be unchanged in the quarter-finals.
The prize for the winners was a quarter-final against Scotland with South Africa awaiting the losers. Wales appeared keener at the start to avoid the Springboks and it took Australia until the 20th-minute before they ventured out of their own half. They were by then trailing to a Dan Biggar penalty having been stretched defensively.
George North was held up over the line after Gareth Anscombe’s chip and Gareth Davies twice sniped his way over the gain line as Wales, stealing a lineout, pilfering a scrum against the put-in and protecting their own ball at the breakdown from the predators in the opposition back row looked comfortable rather than threatening.
Australia seemed content to see what Wales had before unlocking their arsenal although they looked strong up front from the first scrum where Scott Sio’s strength caused problems for Samson Lee whose failure to stay down in the 25th minute as the Wallabies drove gave Bernard Foley a penalty from 30 metres which was turned into three points.
The calm conditions of the previous two weekends had given way to a swirling wind. Both sides took the aerial route and even Israel Folau looked uncomfortable receiving, once fortunate not to be penalised for effectively blocking Biggar as the outside-half chased his own kick, but the initial desire of both sides to play with width disappeared in the mess the breakdown became.
One feature of the World Cup so far is the difference in the tolerance thresholds of referees to defending players after a tackle. The Europeans tend to give them a second longer to compete than their counterparts from the south who are more keen on possession being recycled than contested. None is more strict than the South African Craig Joubert, who awarded 36 penalties in the match between France and Italy on the opening weekend and had reached 15 here by the interval.
Some were for cynical offences, such as Will Genia on the one side and Justin Tipuric on the other slowing down opposition ball, but others were more borderline. It meant Foley and Biggar became locked in a ball-kicking duel which looked like being even until the Welshman missed a 40m penalty one minute from the interval, his first blemish this tournament.
By then Foley had kicked three penalties to Biggar’s two with neither try-line threatened since North’s early thrust. Biggar’s attempt to use Jamie Roberts and Alex Cuthbert as decoys did not fool Sean McMahon who thumped into Wales’s playmaker while Wales were as unyielding, quick line speed thwarting moves that had foxed England the previous week. It was tactical, tense and tight, as if the knockout stage had started a week early.
The battle between the back rows was as fiercely contested as the match itself, McMahon hitting hard and David Pocock applying pressure over the ball on the one side with Justin Tipuric and Sam Warburton doing it on the other. Joubert gave them more latitude at the start of the second half, Pocock forcing Scott Baldwin to concede a penalty by holding on and Warburton stealing the ball as the Wallabies lined up an attack and it was largely a match between equals, Australia extending their lead to six points with Foley’s fourth penalty after Taulupe Faletau’s high tackle.
The presence of Anscombe gave Wales a creative twist and, as Australian moves ended with passes that against England looked slick but, under more pressure, looked sloppy this time, Wales gradually took a grip on the game, prompted by their schemer at scrum-half, Gareth Davies, who six weeks ago had destined to provide no more than a supporting role from the bench.
He never missed an opportunity to raise the pace of the game, testing Australia around the fringes, and after McMahon was replaced and Pocock started limping before going off, play became concentrated in Australia’s 22 after Davies charged down Foley’s clearance near Australia’s line. Within a minute, the Wallabies were down to 14 men: Adam Ashley-Cooper’s experience was in vain as he conceded a soft penalty at the breakdown, Davies took it quickly and had covered only a few metres when he was hauled down by Genia who was sent to the sin-bin.
Wales opted for a line-out rather than a scrum or three points and three penalties later they had a two man advantage when Dean Mumm dragged down Alun Wyn Jones at a rolling maul and received a yellow card. Wales, with a library of hard-luck stories in this fixture, had seven minutes with a two-man advantage but somehow they failed to score. Liam Williams was held up on the line, Faletau lost control of the ball as he tried to touch it down and Ben McCalman got underneath North.
Wales had to score but 13 proved unlucky for them, not Australia. When Biggar was crunched in the tackle by Ashley-Cooper and was penalised for holding on, the Wallabies broke free. One break from Folau and another by Foley took play to the other end of the field where they stayed. Foley’s fifth penalty sealed victory and he could afford to miss a sixth after Alex Cuthbert’s deliberate knock-on left the wing to watch the rest of the match from the sin-bin.