It had looked as if Wales would end their annus horribilis with a win but this defeat will be the hardest to take of the nine they have crashed to this year. With 25 minutes to play, they were 34-13 ahead, after nearly an hour of confident, even consummate, rugby. Even with 15 to go, they were 34-18 up but in an insane last quarter of an hour they unravelled, conceding three tries, two of them to Australia’s exciting new winger Mark Nawaqanitawase, and losing two men to the sin-bin.
Justin Tipuric, captain no less, tripped Pete Samu and was first to go, followed by Ryan Elias with five minutes remaining for taking down a lineout, conceding a penalty try in the process. In the 78th minute, Nawaqanitawase tore away again and Lachlan Lonergan collected a loose ball out on the right to claim the winning try.
Nawaqanitawase had sown the initial doubts in Welsh minds with his first try, a smart finish in the corner, but those whispers grew ever louder when Tipuric was banished. A lovely move off the back of a lineout sprung Nawaqanitawase through a gap for his second, before that penalty try brought Australia to within two points with five to play.
This is a crushing defeat for Wales, all the more so given how well they had played until then. They welcomed back some familiar faces, all of whom played well. The fresher faces seemed to be fitting in, too. Whether any of it meant anything, given the overwhelming number of missing Wallabies, is moot, but this looked a reprieve at least for Wayne Pivac. Now the questions over his future will be sounding rather louder than any whispers.
Wales lost both half-backs to injury, having had Leigh Halfpenny pull out through injury in the warm-up. Tomos Williams was off in the 10th minute but when Gareth Anscombe, looking so authoritative at fly-half, left with a shoulder injury in the 55th minute, Wales disintegrated.
Early signs had been so encouraging. Wales’s forwards played with confidence, handling as smoothly as they scrummaged dominantly. Alun Wyn Jones’s burst off Williams’s half-break was consummated with a flamboyant offload to send Jac Morgan away for the game’s first try, in the 10th minute. If Jones represents Wales’s past, Morgan seems as apt a representative of their future as anyone. He barrelled his way through tackle after tackle and flicked a few passes himself.
Tipuric was through a hole next, and smooth handling across the backline, including by young Rio Dyer, in from the other wing, put Taulupe Faletau over in the corner, for a try on his 100th cap. Anscombe’s second penalty put Wales 20-6 up just shy of the hour.
Australia looked all at sea at that point, which is hardly surprising given the list of absentees. But they have been nobody’s fools on this tour. Their one-point loss to Italy a fortnight ago might not have looked too clever, but they had lost their last three Tests by an aggregate of five points. When they drove a lineout over for their first try five minutes before the break, they seemed to serve notice they were not going anywhere.
Wales scored twice just after the break, which might have put the game to bed in a sane world. Jake Gordon, Australia’s scrum-half, had seen yellow at the end of the first as the Wallabies managed somehow to keep out the marauding Welsh. But the home team’s task was helped by a second yellow five minutes into the second half, shown to Tom Robertson for the side’s umpteenth scrum penalty in a row. Against 13 men, Wales did not so much drive the resultant lineout but gallop it over the line for Morgan’s second.
They profited from a good position from another lineout five minutes later, which built into a series of surges by the front-five forwards. The coup de grace was supplied by Dyer, who took Anscombe’s cut-out pass to score in the corner. Anscombe converted from the touchline.
A 21-point lead. Impregnable. Surely? Alas, that was Anscombe’s last meaningful contribution, picking up an injury in tackling the mighty Ned Hanigan. He went off and, boy, so did Wales.