From ecstasy to agony
Graham Jenkins at the Millennium Stadium
December 1, 2012
Wales' Mike Philips reflects in a game that got away from his side © PA Photos
Wales come up short again...
A year that began so brightly for Wales with Six Nations glory has ended with that same side in the mire.
Long gone are the smiles that greeted their Grand Slam triumph to be replaced by dejected faces all too aware that they are some way from the clinical side that swept all before them in the most recent battle for northern hemisphere supremacy.
Standing under the posts in a Millennium Stadium packed with people but eerily silent having been stunned by Kurtley Beale's match-winning try for Australia, captain Sam Warburton and his team-mates were forced to reflect on yet another victory against the Wallabies that they allowed to get away.
Australia did not win this game, Wales lost it. Deep inside the Wallabies' with a little over two minutes remaining the faltering Wales lineout failed to provide a platform from which the home side could wind the clock down. Defensive frailty then offered Australia hope before a wayward clearance kick from fly-half Rhys Priestland just invited trouble - and it came in the form of a sweeping move that ended with Beale diving over in the corner.
The lengthy delay before the conversion could be taken, caused by an injury to the outstanding Leigh Halfpenny, will have been painful for a side that just wanted to disappear into the tunnel but was instead forced to stand and ponder what had just happened. But they should get used to an extended period of tortuous self-examination with this result not only capping a disastrous end of year campaign but condemning them to a nightmare 2015 Rugby World Cup pool draw on Monday that will see them grouped with two sides from the top eight in the IRB rankings. As a result, the fallout from this game and their end of year campaign is set to last for at least the next three years.
This was easily their best performance of a troubled campaign that has seen them bullied by Argentina, beaten up by Samoa and outclassed by New Zealand with some welcome and crowd-pleasing invention on display that kept the Wallabies guessing throughout. They may have taken a battering in recent weeks but they retained plenty of faith in their ability and confidence to make it pay. But this was negated by a clear breakdown in communication and a failure to close out a game that was all but won. It may be several weeks until Christmas, but the season of giving has clearly begun in Cardiff with the hosts guilty of gift-wrapping this win by switching off in the closing stages.
Halfpenny was again the star performer, as he has been throughout their misfiring campaign, and it was so sad to see him stretchered from the field in the dying moments of yet another Man of the Match display. No one has done more to try and propel Wales to their Six Nations heights in the past month and he found some much-needed support against the Wallabies in the form of winger Alex Cuthbert and centre Jamie Roberts - both of whom looked hungry from the outset. Fly-half Rhys Priestland also shook off his recent woe with a more composed display but a costly missed touch towards the end of the game took much of the shine off his performance.
Coach Warren Gatland will no doubt be more than a little frustrated at this result and even more so given he will not be around to conduct the post-mortem and orchestrate some kind of revival with the team's reins set to pass once again to assistant Rob Howley as his boss concentrates fully on his British & Irish Lions duties. The decision by the Welsh Rugby Union to allow Gatland to take time out from Wales during the autumn to formulate his Lions plans now looks to have been ill-advised given how the side have slumped in the rankings.
You can have nothing but respect for a Wallabies side that has been knocked from pillar to post this year but emerge with much credit. They may have not played much rugby on this latest visit to Cardiff but you cannot fault their never-say-die attitude that eventually carried them to victory. Lock Nathan Sharpe epitomised the fighting spirit that has just about kept the wolves from the door in the last few months and victory was a fitting send-off for the Test centurion as he attempt to begin his retirement - for the third time.
Ravaged by injury and forced to trawl a limited talent pool that many say does not offer the strength in depth for them to able to cope without their leading names, the Wallabies finish the year where they began - second in the world. It is a status that few can argue against with the Wallabies having whitewashed the Six Nations Grand Slam champions in a three-match series earlier this year and claimed the runners-up spot in the inaugural Rugby Championship. And if it were not for England's heroics against New Zealand at Twickenham, then Australia would have also been the only side to have bloodied the All Blacks' nose.
Coach Robbie Deans has also been through the ringer. Labelled the 'worst thing to have ever happened to Australian rugby' by former Wallabies star David Campese just a few short weeks ago, he can now embrace 2013 with renewed confidence safe in the knowledge his arsenal will also benefit from the return is some truly world-class individuals before the British & Irish Lions hit town.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.