CARDIFF – Dan Biggar hit a late penalty to help Wales edge Australia 9-6 on Saturday and buck a 10-year, 13-match losing streak against the Wallabies.
Psychological one-upmanship was up for grabs in a dress rehearsal of what had been billed a pool-deciding match at next year’s Rugby World Cup.
But neither side shone from an attacking point of view in what was a true defensive slugfest, albeit intense, at Cardiff’s Principality Stadium where there was little reward for all the hard-hitting hustle and bustle.
The score at halftime was locked at 3-3 thanks to one penalty apiece by Leigh Halfpenny and Bernard Foley, the misfiring Welsh fullback adding one more before going off injured.
Matt Toomua hit Australia’s second late in the game, before Biggar knocked over the winning score with two minutes to play to extend Wales’ winning streak to seven games – the best since the 2004/5 season.
Wales dominated territory and possession in the opening 15 minutes, but the well-drilled Australian defence remained resolute in an indicator of what was to come.
That could only last so long, however, before someone infringed and so it proved with forwards straying offside from a ruck.
Halfpenny went wide with the relatively easy opportunity.
Both sides seemed keen on running everything, but for all the earnest endeavour, it was not the most entertaining spectacle.
Errors were few, Australia looked by far the more skilful side, and Wales seemed limited in attack as defence kept its iron grip on a game that was nothing if not intense.
The Australian set-piece started to look somewhat creaky and a deliberate wheel at scrum time gifted Halfpenny a second chance, the fullback making no mistake from the tee this time around.
An Adam Coleman knock-on put pay to Australia’s best showing in attack, the lock spilling the ball deep in the Welsh 22m area with the home side under the cosh.
Foley equalled the score in the 33rd minute after Dan Lydiate strayed offside in midfield.
The Wallabies were on top immediately after, but Coleman was left isolated after another succession of phases in the so-called “red zone” in what coach Michael Cheika would put down as a missed opportunity to grab some more points.
An uncharacteristically off-target Halfpenny was left clutching his head when he missed his second penalty on the stroke of halftime after Wallaby hooker Tolu Latu played the ball off his feet at a ruck.
Halfpenny was at the heart of the action early in the second period, however, first with a smart chase and catch off flyhalf Gareth Anscombe’s up-and-under, and then latching on to George North’s clever tap-down from an Anscombe kick-pass.
But it was all to no avail as the Wallaby rush defence picked off the Welsh attackers.
Foley spurned a second kickable penalty in the 49th minute, but there was a knock-on from the ensuing attacking corner line-out.
The Australian flyhalf again opted for touch a few minutes later, but Latu overthrew and Wales rushed downfield.
Replacement hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau was then at fault, pinged for playing the ball on the floor. And this time, Halfpenny made no mistake to hand Wales the lead.
But amid deafening whistles after Halfpenny was seemingly taken out late, Toomua levelled the scores with seven minutes to play.
And it was not over as Biggar stepped up after Ned Hanigan failed to roll away from a ruck to fire home the winning penalty.