Wallabies fend off spirited Wales
BRISBANE (Reuters) - Australia shrugged off the fatigue of playing two tests in five days to weather a fierce second half assault and prevail 27-19 over Wales on Saturday.
Trailing 17-3 minutes after the break, Wales closed the gap to just a point after a try to winger Alex Cuthbert in the 58th minute and some accurate kicking in tricky conditions by fullback Leigh Halfpenny on a drizzly night at Lang Park.
But Wallabies inside centre Pat McCabe made up for blowing a try in the first half by storming through the Wales line 10 minutes later to secure the win in front of a crowd more than 42,000 and a 1-0 lead in the three-match series.
The victory was a welcome relief for Australia's embattled coach Robbie Deans, who was heavily criticised following the Wallabies' shock 9-6 loss to Scotland in rainy Newcastle on Tuesday, and had just three days to prepare a side with nine changes in the starting lineup.
"Obviously some of the conversations we had as a group during the week helped the whole group in terms of having a clear understanding of what we wanted to do, but getting it done is another thing," Deans told reporters.
"It was a good Welsh side, they put us under a lot of pressure but these blokes held strong.
"We know what's going to be coming next week, another hell of a fight."
The teams meet in the second test in Melbourne next weekend with Wales still desperate to scalp a southern hemisphere power and register their first win in Australia since 1969.
But for some panicky passing, Wales could well have broken the drought with a gilt-edged opportunity in the 61st minute, that would have given them the lead, almost symbolic of how close they came.
RUSH OF BLOOD
A rush of blood to the head saw flyhalf Rhys Priestland spill a terrible pass over his head in front of the posts that beckoned to be quickly spread wide with a two-man overlap ultimately going begging.
After McCabe's try, the Wallabies defended doggedly to hold onto the lead, making a series of try-saving tackles in the final minutes.
"I thought we showed great character and spirit in the second half," Wales caretaker coach Rob Howley said.
"Obviously we've lost the second half 17-16, but we've created a lot of opportunities and probably left two or three tries out on the park to be honest."
Although dominating possession and territory, the Wallabies appeared a bundle of nerves in the opening minutes, putting themselves under pressure with a clutch of errant passes, but an equally jittery Wales failed to capitalise.
The visitors made the first major incursion in the 10th minute with a break in midfield, but McCabe made a brilliant, lunging tackle to bring down opposing number Scott Williams 10 metres from the line, before a knock-on ended the movement.
McCabe turned from hero to villain four minutes later when he blew a certain try, sparking howls of condemnation from the stands, when he ignored winger Digby Ioane in support on the outside and made a dart for the left corner only to be tackled short of the line.
The Wallabies' pressure eventually told and the Welsh defence buckled in the 15th minute when flanker Scott Higginbotham planted the ball over the line next to the posts after a series of crashing drives by the forwards.
Fullback Halfpenny stemmed the bleeding with a penalty goal kick in the 23rd minute and kept the Wallabies scoreless to the break to trail 10-3, but scrumhalf and man-of-the-match Will Genia struck less than a minute after the break, dancing past a clutch of flat-footed defenders to cross beneath the posts.
With the floodgates straining, Wales counter-attacked with abandon leaving casualties on both sides. A clash of heads between hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau and Williams saw both players trudge woozily off the field before winger Cuthbert scored just before the hour mark, snaffling a pass popped up from debutant replacement Ashley Beck before charging over near the right corner.
After Priestland's fumble, Halfpenny slotted his fourth penalty to bring Wales close at 20-19, but McCabe delighted in a perfectly-weighted pass from Genia to cross by the posts and spark a thunderous roar from the crowd.
In the closing minutes Higginbotham proved heroic as he brought down fleet-footed Cuthbert on the line near the right corner and Barnes made another try-stopping tackle to leave Wales smarting in defeat and fired up to make amends in Melbourne.
The visitors may have an injury concern over Williams after his head-knock, which saw him leave the pitch with blood splattered down the front of his jersey, while scrumhalf Mike Phillips may come under scrutiny for appearing to strike a prone Wallabies player in a scuffle moments before the final whistle.
(Editing by Tom Bartlett)
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