Australia players celebrate victory against Wales. Photo / AP
Australia came from 21 points down with 23 minutes left to overhaul Wales 39-34 in an astonishing turnaround in their Cardiff rugby test today.
After the historic loss to Georgia last weekend, Wales desperately needed the win more than the heavily depleted Wallabies and was delivering in style by rolling to 34-13 with its best rugby of the month.
But Wales gifted the diehard Australians a way back in when captain Justin Tipuric was yellow-carded for tripping.
They were smart enough to expose Tipuric’s absence when wing Mark Nawaqanitawase scored off a lineout ball. Then the Wallabies forwards earned a penalty try from a rolling maul and they were trailing only 34-32 with six long minutes to go.
Moreover, Wales was reduced to 13 players as replacement hooker Ryan Elias was yellow-carded for collapsing the maul.
Australia made that count, too. Nawaqanitawase’s break had support, Wales scrumhalf Kieran Hardy intercepted the last pass but knocked it forward, and Australia replacement hooker Lachlan Lonergan regathered and ran in the winning try, his first in test rugby, in the 78th minute.
Despite racking up their most points against Australia, the Welsh managed the last quarter badly and their ninth loss in 12 tests gave them their worst calendar year since 2010. The future of coach Wayne Pivac was already in doubt before the match.
Australia has also lost nine tests this year but completed a grueling, injury-ridden, five-test tour of Europe with a win for the first time in nine years.
The teams are due to meet in the Rugby World Cup pool stage next September, but if the Wallabies are at full strength, only five or six from the run-on side in Cardiff ought to start in Lyon, France. They didn’t have the likes of Michael Hooper, Rob Valetini, Nic White, Bernard Foley or Tom Banks. Flyhalf Ben Donaldson, who missed the last-gasp conversion to beat Italy, and No. 8 Langi Gleeson started a test for the first time.
A big hit by Gleeson on Wales fullback Josh Adams gave Donaldson an early penalty kick he slotted to settle nerves.
Adams started after Leigh Halfpenny suffered a back spasm in the warmup and withdrew late for the second time this month. But Wales had reloaded with Alun Wyn Jones, Taulupe Faletau and Gareth Anscombe and all enjoyed big games.
The team held the ball patiently and looked for space. Jones featured with an offload and a backpass in the leadup to the first two tries by back-rowers Jac Morgan and Faletau, who was playing his 100th test ad 95th for Wales. Anscombe kicked Wales to 20-6 after 28 minutes.
Australia came back with a rolling maul try for hooker Folau Fainga’a and survived a stressful finish to the half without sin-binned scrumhalf Jake Gordon.
After a fourth consecutive five-meter scrum, Hardy ran the short side and was held up by Tom Wright, the fullback covering for Gordon behind the scrum.
Wales came out of halftime at 20-13 up in an even better position.
A 52-metre penalty attempt by Reece Hodge hit the post then prop Tom Robertson, who replaced captain James Slipper during the break, was yellow-carded and Australia was down to 13 men.
Morgan bagged two tries in a second straight test from a rolling maul.
Gordon returned but Australia was still a man down, and Wales wing Rio Dyer flew in from a textbook buildup. Wales was cruising at 34-13 but then began to lose its composure.
Anscombe, who extended his perfect kicking record this month to 14 out of 14, left with a right shoulder injury.
Then Nawaqanitawase, who made his debut only two weeks ago, launched Australia’s fightback with a pair of brilliantly taken tries.
Wales still led by nine with the captain in the sin-bin when Jones and Faletau were subbed off. That was the point when the home side fell apart and the Wallabies cashed in to win in Cardiff for the first time in five years.