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Wales show superb game management


Analysis: How Wales successfully negotiated agonising final minutes v Australia

Wales had been here before. With 71 minutes on the clock, despite leading for the entire match, they were in a predictable dog-fight with an old foe. A side that had routinely inflicted untold hurt on Wales. The Wallabies were in the ascendency, with 80 per cent second-half possession and all the momentum. A half-time deficit of 23-8 had been pegged back to 26-25 through tries from Dane Haylett-Petty and Michael Hooper and Australia were turning the screw.

To make things worse, Wales’ nemesis, Kurtley Beale, that serial breaker of hearts, was on the field leaving many Welsh fans resembling Edvard Munch’s Scream. A sense of foreboding was enveloping the thousands of Welsh fans outnumbered by Wallaby fans in the Tokyo Stadium. At home, in Wales, millions were barely able to watch. Many were reaching for the drinks cabinet. It was 10.34am.

Hooper dropping the shoulder with a late-tackle on Biggar. Kerevi being penalised for a leading forearm to Rhys Patchell’s neck. That could wait for the post-match inquest. Wales had to regroup, find their lungs and fight for their lives.

(Continue reading below…)

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Here’s how the action unfolded…

The match creeps past 70 minutes. Wales make a rare incursion into Australia’s 22 to gain their first points for 28 minutes and earn a slither of breathing space through the boot of Patchell, after the Wallabies had infringed at the lineout. The clock reads 71.32. Seconds earlier, a ‘free ball’ had seen Beale’s fingertips denying George North after Patchell’s cross-kick evaded the North Walian’s outstretched palms.

Both sides look emotionally and physically spent in the high-humidity, bent over on their haunches. Tomos Williams enters the fray.

The next act, at 72.36, sees the Wallabies crossing the half-way line through the muscular Kerevi. Owen Watkin commits and expertly rips the ball out of his bear-sized mitts for Tomos Williams to scurry into Australian territory. Seconds later Beale, shimmying his hips, breaks out holding the ball in both hands and pops a pass to the enormous Lukhan Salakaia-Loto. It’s adjudged forward. Beale grimaces. Is the momentum shifting back to Wales? Maybe not. Minutes of scrum resets on the Wallaby 22m line ensues until the Wallabies are awarded a scrum-penalty. The clock is now showing 76.29. Advantage Australia?

Amid the mayhem, Wales try to soak up precious time as Josh Navidi peels away with the ball, turning his back on the Wallabies. He’s harried by the outrageously moustachioed Nic White. There is whooping and hollering from the Wallaby bench. Alun Wyn Jones towers over Romain Poite seeking an explanation.

With the players fighting for oxygen like climbers on Everest, game-management is key but that other intangible; heart and courage is taking over.

From a little confab breaks Matt Toomua, who has proved so influential since entering proceedings. He looks up, swings his right boot and rifles the ball upfield, looking to eat up as much field position as possible. The ball hangs in the air for four seconds. Guarding the touchline, Tomos Williams, the livewire Welsh replacement No 9 awaits, tracking the ball in the night sky, before springing balletically backwards, a metre out of play and miraculously palms the ball back in play to a covering Josh Adams. Did he just do that? The wing scans left and right seeking the all-clear. Both touch judges keep their flags down, and he rifles the ball back with interest.

To further add to the sense of theatre, the lights dim as the clock creeps towards the denouement of the game. White scurries back into the Welsh half. The ball is recycled cleanly and Toomua, atoning for his missed touch-finder finds touch with a raking grubber just 15 metres out. Time for a Welsh lineout that’s had its wobbles.

The clock is on 77.25. Elliot Dee stands nonchalantly waiting for play to recommence, spinning the ball on his fingertips, as if he’s mucking about in Dragons training, not in the final throes of a pivotal World Cup pool game. More seconds are eaten up as Dillon Lewis, trundles over, cupping his hands over his mouth, to give instructions. Justin Tipuric, in his customary blue scrum-cap, waves away three Welsh forwards. It’s a four-man line-out. As Tipuric has done all game, he comes to the front of the lineout, springs up and gets his fingertips to it, but it’s untidy ball. Tomos Williams at full-stretch catches the greasy ball with one-hand and set up a ruck.

The clock is showing 78.01.

The incessant din in the crowd is reaching a crescendo.

Aaron Shingler lowers his body angle and drives into heavy traffic. Dillon Lewis acts as scrum-half and pops the ball to Alun Wyn Jones. It’s secure ball. A few more seconds pass. Williams looks round and whips a ball-back to Rhys Patchell who picks the ball off his toes and leathers the upfield, almost 60m, from deep inside the in-goal area. Haylett-Petty thunders back as Justin Tipuric and then Josh Navidi come out of the line and offer themselves as first-up tacklers. The Wallabies regather. This time Matt Toomua steps off his left-foot and cuts back inside only for Alun Wyn Jones to bring him to ground.

Fans of both sides are now open mouthed, transfixed by the action, some cover their eyes, some look at their feet. The tension is unbearable.

The clock is showing 78.47.

The Welsh defence retains its shape as Ross Moriarty chops the galloping Salakaia-Loto. Lungs are bursting as Justin Tipuric puts in yet another tackle and the game creeps into its final minute. As Australia frantically recycle, Alun Wyn Jones again offers himself for his 25th and final tackle of the day.

Reset defence. Get low. Hands on the ground. Body position correct. One last push. 79.20 is showing.

Kerevi thunders into the Wales 22, only to be brought down by Owen Watkin and Jonathan Davies. Liam Williams loiters a yard out, nursing an ankle injury. He spots his chance, in a split-second, he prepares himself as if diving into a small hoop and in a feat of grand larceny, pilfers the ball from the prone Kerevi and rips it backwards. The ball is loose but spotted by Lewis who gathers and falls to the ground in an exhausted embrace with Nicky Smith.

The ball is protected. Wales have led for 79 minutes. They are finally in control of their own destiny.

Time to slow the game down. Josh Navidi and Justin Tipuric stroll languidly behind the formed ruck as Williams waves his arms. He pops the ball for Navidi to once again adopt a low centre of gravity and scuttle into contact.

More time eaten up. Welsh players look upwards. 79.40 on the clock.

Williams sees Alun Wyn Jones – offering himself as a carrier. He drives into three Wallaby defenders. Has there ever been a safer pair of hands in Welsh rugby?

The clock is showing 79.50. Fans start screaming a countdown.

All the pain of training camps at altitude in Switzerland and hot-weather camps in Turkey is worth the pain. A precious win is within their grasp.

They protect the ball as Wallaby captain Michael Hooper comes in from the side, desperately smashing a ruck.

The gong goes. The game is in the red.

Eying the clock, Williams looks up and hooks the ball out of play to Welsh elation. Players drop to their knees, replacements leap about all smiles. The squad forms a huddle in the middle of the field for Alun Wyn Jones to offer some words of wisdom, away from the microphones. They’ve done it.

Wales had nine minutes to hold out, and it seemed like an eternity to most bystanders but the fact they did was instructive to Wales’ development as a team over the last few years. The cool-headed game management in those final minutes mattered much more than those that had preceded it. Wales simply refused to be beaten.

Under Gatland, Wales have had to learn the hard way. They had lost composure before when leading against Southern Hemisphere in the dying minutes. Indeed, seven games had been lost by less than ten points to the Wallabies under Gatland, including the 2015 World Cup pool game, the Third-Fourth place Play-off in 2011. It was time Wales gave Michael Cheika’s men payback.

As recriminations over refereeing decisions continue to smoulder Down Under, Wales can put it behind them. They have put themselves in an enviable position to be on the right side of the draw. Beers. Rest. Recuperation. Time to go again.

Fiji are up next. Wales know there is no margin for error.

Watch: Wales react to brilliant win over Wallabies

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Analysis: How Wales successfully negotiated agonising final minutes v Australia
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