Auckland: Australia overcame early injuries to star backs Quade Cooper and Kurtley Beale to beat Wales 21-18 in the Rugby World Cup third-place playoff Friday, finally ending a 25-year losing streak at Eden Park.
The playoff for bronze was always about who could switch back on mentally after their semifinals disappointments, and the Wallabies rebounded superbly. Their vaunted backline was back to its flashy best to start, but after more injuries in a campaign plagued by them, they relied on grit and a ball-jolting defense to win and celebrate lock Nathan Sharpe becoming the fifth Wallaby to 100 tests.
"I'm very proud of the way these guys stuck at it, particularly this week," Wallabies coach Robbie Deans said, "and I think they showed not only what it meant to them but also showed that there is a lot of valuable substance in this group that we will see more of over the next few years."
The result flattered the Welsh and left them doubly disappointed after narrowly losing to France with 14 men in the semifinals. The Welsh wanted to prove they would have been worthy finalists, but with 15 men they failed to click until deep in injury time when they matched the Wallabies with a second try.
"We weren't as emotionally up for it as we had been in other games," Wales coach Warren Gatland said. "Our performance was a little bit down from what we're capable of. In saying that, we played one of the best sides in the world and scored two tries against them, against one of the best defensive teams in this competition."
The difference was made up by the goalkicking. James O'Connor landed three from six attempts, and midfielder Berrick Barnes added an insurance dropped goal that made it 16-8 with 12 minutes to go.
In contrast, Wales flyhalf James Hook knocked over only one from three attempts, and the venerable Stephen Jones added a late penalty and conversion to pass Andrew Mehrtens for sixth on the all-time scorers list. The defeat extended Wales' winless record against the Tri-Nations powerhouses in the southern hemisphere to 24 years. The last win was the corresponding fixture at the inaugural World Cup in 1987, over a 14-man Australia.
These Wallabies weren't prepared to lose. Finally given ball and space to play with after being starved in the quarterfinals and semifinals, the Australian backs showed off the attacking verve they're noted for, with Cooper their maestro.
He bombed the Wallabies' first real try chance, after scrumhalf Will Genia tapped a penalty five meters from the Welsh line. Cooper's rushed pass inside went straight to Adam Ashley-Cooper's knee. That was also the end of Beale, who had missed the semifinals with a hamstring strain only for it to recur just 10 minutes in.
The scrum, the perceived weakness of the Wallabies who were fielding an all-new frontrow, was a surprising force when it focused. From an attacking shove, swift passes fed Barnes, who burst into a gap and easily slipped through the line and around behind the posts in the 12th. O'Connor converted for 7-0.
It all changed for the Wallabies in the 21st when Cooper, on attack inside the Wales 22 with ball in hand, suddenly pulled up and dropped in front of the defense, with a suspected ruptured right knee ligaments. At that point he had passed the ball 17 times, taken a high ball with aplomb and expertly kicked for touch. He deserved the warm ovation he received from the crowd of 53,013 while limping off Eden Park. That was a change from the jeers he heard in previous matches.
Australia shuffled the backline with Barnes moving to flyhalf, substitutes Robert Horne and Anthony Fainga'a in midfield and Ashley-Cooper switched from center to fullback. What they lacked in cohesion they made up for with stoic defense. The forwards, spearheaded by No. 8 Ben McCalman, world player of the year finalist David Pocock and prop James Slipper, helped shut down Wales, making twice as many tackles.
Wales reached the break with only a penalty on the board from the mediocre Hook, but opened the second half with a try gifted by referee Wayne Barnes, who missed Hook's grounded pass that traveled two meters forward. Winger Shane Williams kicked the ball on, picked it up and dived over for the 59th try of a glittering career. Hook couldn't convert from the sideline but Wales led 8-7.
Justice arrived five minutes later when O'Connor regained the lead from a 43-meter penalty, conceded by Paul James in a ruck. O'Connor extended the lead by three with a 35-meter shot three minutes later. Barnes added his dropped goal for 16-8, and Ashley-Cooper was denied a try by Wales winger George North. But sustained Australian pressure was rewarded with a try to McCalman in the 76th.
Wales didn't fade, however, as it worked the ball until Australia ran out of defenders and fullback Leigh Halfpenny had an easy run in, three minutes into injury time, for a try converted by Jones. It was little consolation for a team which will travel home for 18,000 kilometers and over 24 hours without the medals it wanted to show from a World Cup in which it regained prominence and respect.