Rugby World Cup 1999
Hosts Wales fall to clinical Wallabies
October 24, 1999
George Gregan celebrates after giving Australia the lead in Cardiff
© Getty Images
With the "Welsh Mirror" devoting six pages to this quarter-final match and that's excluding those in the sports section, there was no danger of the Principality underplaying its hand today. The question remained whether the pressure would prove too heavy a burden on Graham Henry's men or whether they could make light work of the job in hand.
The Wallabies have not come second to Wales since they lost the third-place play-off in the 1987 World Cup. The Dragons were grateful to the boot of Paul Thorburn that day and much of the Welsh threat eminated from the same part of Neil Jenkins' anatomy today. While Graham Henry might protest otherwise, this would be their best chance of a victory in years.
For the six matches since 1987 the Wallabies have won, and occasionally swaggered to victory as they did in the Brisbane in 1991. However these are changed times and Wales were never likely to leak 63 points as they did that day. That they ultimately failed had nothing to do with effort but simply came down to a perceptable gap in class among the quick men.
To celebrate winning his 50th cap, the honour of leading Wales onto the pitch was given to Garin Jenkins, and the hooker was met with a wall of sound from the capacity crowd that Phil Spector would be proud off.
Steve Larkham over-cooked his first kick which rolled dead and gave the initial advantage to Wales but the fly-half was quick to make amends. Breaking from deep in his own half he wrong-footed Mark Taylor and Wales were fortunate not to concede an early score as Roff and Larkham himself dithered with the line a-begging.
They were not held for long. George Gregan broke blind from a ruck outside the Welsh twenty-two. The number nine fed Joe Roff who made most of the ground to the line before asking Gregan to cover the last two yards, something he did despite the despairing tackle of Gareth Thomas. Mathew Burke's kick put the visitors seven ahead in as many minutes.
Neil Jenkins, now the most capped Welshman in history, pulled three points back with a touchline conversion but every time the Aussie backs saw the ball they fully justified their tag as the best unit currently operating in world rugby. Winger Ben Tune was hauled down seven metres short and while the Welsh defence was able to plug the gaps that time it was only after creeping offside. Burke stretched the lead with another three points.
The game was being played at a helter-skelter pace. Dafydd James looked to have put Mark Taylor away before being called back for crossing, Shane Howarth ran everything that came his way and Wales slowly dragged themselves back into the match. Australia killed a ball in front of their own posts and Jenkins did the neccessary to bring the score back to 6-10 with one quarter of the match gone.
Given how dangerous the Wallaby backs had looked, the crowd's prayers were answered with a downpour of rain. John Eales was enjoying himself at the lineout, stealing one ball ten yards from the Welsh line, while the home front row were never able to exert any pressure in the one area commentators expected the Dragons to have some bite.
Given the less than tropical monsoon this was fast becoming a day for the ducks and the ball spent more time being hoiked into the air as neither side trusted their handling skills in such conditions. A spill by Burke was eventually penalised by Jenkins, who else, after Scott Gibbs made a great dent in the Aussie midfield and David Wilson found himself on the wrong side of the ruck. The deficit was now one point but, to the Wallabies' relief, the rain had relented still leaving the surface impossibly slippery.
Ben Evans replaced Dai Young in the front row just before the break and immediately gave up a penalty to help relieve the pressure that Wales had exerted on the Wallabies for much of the second quarter. Half time arrived immediately after Burke had missed his second penalty, this one from three yards inside his own half.
The Welsh backs looked short of genuine pace, at least against this opposition they did. So it proved when Gareth Thomas was collared after a wayward Larkham kick. Two penalties later and Australia were camped on the Welsh line. A desperate Howley hack cleared that danger and then Tiaan Strauss was forced to halt the rampaging Scott Quinnell at the other end of the park.
With the match so evenly balanced there was a feeling that the next score could prove an important one. The best opportunity fell to Daniel Herbert when a double dummy scissors put him through the middle and Wales were saved by another Wallaby handling error.
The arrival of Allan Bateman, for Gareth Thomas, lifted both team and crowd who greeted the Northampton centre like a prodigal son. The Welsh siege was lifted when Larkham spiralled a torpedo from his own twenty two to within spitting distance of the Welsh line. When Garin Jenkins made a hash of the lineout throw, David Wilson must have thought it was his birthday as he set off for the line.
Again their hands failed the Wallaby backs, Larkham this time passing along the turf, and Wales charged upfield. For a match without a second half score this was riveting stuff and as the match entered the last quarter that elusive score looked ever more important.
When it came it owed more to brain than brawn. From a midfield ruck Larkham nudged through an innocuous looking kick along the ground. Unfortunately for Wales Shane Howarth, who'd enjoyed near perfection to that point, was caught out of position, and Ben Tune was able to slide onto the ball ahead of him. Burke converted the try before Tune, again, and David Wilson both crossed the Welsh try-line shortly after, only to be called back, as the Wallabies squeezed their grip on the game.
Wales had fourteen minutes to save their World Cup but it was not to be as they were unable to find a way past a defence which has still only conceded one try in this World Cup campaign. Wales did throw the ball about in the final four minutes added for injury but they still lack a cutting edge sharp enough to make an impression today.
Rather it was Gregan who plundered the line in the final act of the game for his second try, though the replay indicates a forward knock from Horan. The final 9-24 flattered the visitors and they will need to continue to improve to make the final.
Wales never enjoyed parity in either lineout or, after Young was replaced, in the scrum. They will hold their heads high tonight and several - Charvis, Wyatt, and Scott Quinnell - deserve a mention in dispatches. However while that north-south gap is narrowing, Wales still don't possess the architect to bridge the divide for now.
Australia, like South Africa did in 1995, keep winning albeit without too much conviction. They missed a handful of chances which, perhaps next weekend, could prove decisive. They will look for improvement but so long as they keep winning neither Rod McQueen or his players will complain. .
Scorers Wales pens Jenkins 3 Australia tries Gregan 2, Tune; pen Burke; con Burke 2