Gutsy Australia end Eden Park jinx - sort of
Graham Jenkins at Eden Park
October 21, 2011
Australia's Berrick Barnes grabbed a try during a Man of the Match performance © Getty Images
It may not have been the long-awaited Eden Park victory over the All Blacks but Australia's first win in Auckland since 1986 will go some way to easing the pain of their Rugby World Cup exit at the hands of their cross-Tasman rivals last weekend.
Many had written off this fixture as meaningless in the week leading up to the game but you try telling that to a Wallabies side that shed blood, sweat and tears on its way to claiming third place in the World Cup. The delight that greeted both the early score from man of the match Berrick Barnes and the late effort from Ben McCalman were celebrated with such vigour this could have been a semi-final or, on another day, the tournament finale.
But there was more substantial evidence as to their commitment in the form a superb defensive showing from the first whistle to all but the last with a bone-aching tackle count of 146 almost twice as high as that of their rivals. The Wallabies' bruising loss to the All Blacks in their final four encounter last weekend left them with plenty of emotional and physical scars. Injuries to the likes of centre Pat McCabe, lock Dan Vickerman and hooker Stephen Moore prompted sweeping changes and you feared for their mental strength. But they stepped up to the fight from the opening exchanges and not even further injuries to fullback Kurtley Beale and fly-half Quade Cooper could dampen their resolve.
The selection of Beale was clearly a gamble with the hamstring strain that ruled him out of the showdown with the All Blacks still not right. He limped out of the action after less than 10 minutes to be followed by a Cooper midway through the first half who fell to the ground untouched as if he had been shot, immediately suggesting anterior cruciate damage. The injury to the Wallabies' playmaker was a particularly cruel blow. The Kiwi-born star has failed to set this World Cup stage alight as he would have hoped - coming into the tournament on the back of a Super Rugby title and Tri-Nations glory. He has also been given a rough ride by New Zealand fans but there was plenty of sympathy on show as he hobbled off with many fans on their feet. That sympathy, triggered by his noteworthy early industry and brave attempts to put his form woes behind him, should bring him some comfort in the coming months on the sidelines.
The loss of Cooper was not as damaging as it could have been due to an excellent all round display from Barnes. He had Cooper to thank for his first half try but from that point this was his show as he peppered the Wales defence with a slick passing game blended with a cultured boot. His superbly struck drop goal, during a 20 minute period in the second half when Australia took control of the destiny of the contest, best summed up his outstanding composure. So impressive was his contribution that you wonder why he has had such a limited World Cup outing?
Not for the first time in this tournament, Wales were left rueing missed opportunities and unforced errors. Missed kicks cost them dear in their semi-final defeat to France less than a week ago and a week on the training paddock failed to provide any significant improvement. Fly-half James Hook and replacement Stephen Jones can hang their heads with relatively simple chances failing to find the target.
But equally worrying for a Wales side that looked so solid in the early stages of the competition were the amount of handling errors. Australia were guilty of their fair share with mental fatigue surely a contributing factor but Wales appeared to gift not only the ball but great field position and with it an important foothold.
There was plenty of effort from Wales with ball in hand and they were not backward in coming forward. They were happy to take the game to Australia with the likes of centre Jamie Roberts, veteran wing Shane Williams and his fellow speedster George North featuring strongly once again but unlike the Wallabies who seemed able to work openings the Welsh backs guilty of sticking resolutely to their tried and tested approach of looking to force gaps in an defence that was in no mood to give an inch. How they have missed injured fly-half Rhys Priestland and his soft touch while suspended flanker Sam Warburton would have also offered something a little different to a side that struggled to conjure the intensity that has served them so well in recent weeks.
The fact they were still in the contest come the end was partly down to Australia's own failure to convert clear cut chances but also the latest gaff from referee Wayne Barnes. The loose pass from Hook to Williams that was hacked on and eventually led to the winger's score was blatantly forward but missed by Barnes and his assistants. Barnes has just about recovered from the furore surrounding a missed pass that helped France to beat New Zealand at the last World Cup and this error will not help his push for higher honours. To add to his woes, moments later a sweeping attack from the Wallabies was brought to an abrupt halt by a forward pass call that was just as questionable.
Wales' stamina has never been in doubt and yet another lung-busting effort brought them reward in the closing stages. A staggering passage of around 30 phases of rugby ground the Wallabies down and resulted in the eye-catching Leigh Halfpenny crossing in added time. It was due reward for their efforts but just made their earlier shortcomings all the more painful.
Perhaps the biggest smiles of the night will be on the faces of the World Cup officials who have seen this fixture lambasted in recent days. Those critics were silenced by two sides that clearly came to play with losing not an option they were prepared to consider. And a bumper crowd of around 53,000 also played its part and also served to reinforce the faith in this fixture. Perhaps the Bronze Final has a future after all - but they have to change that name.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.
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