TOKYO (Reuters) - Wales withstood a furious Australian comeback to secure a 29-25 win in an epic Pool D encounter on Sunday, recording their first win over the Wallabies at the Rugby World Cup since 1987 and taking a major step towards the quarter-finals.
In 80 minutes of gripping drama at Tokyo Stadium, the Six Nations champions built up a 26-8 lead soon after halftime through tries from Hadleigh Parkes and Gareth Davies and drop goals from Dan Biggar and his flyhalf replacement Rhys Patchell.
Australia, fired by their replacement flyhalf Matt To’omua, stormed back with second-half tries from Dane Haylett-Petty and captain Michael Hooper and came within a point at 26-25 after 67 minutes.
The Welsh held on, though, and Patchell contributed 14 points from the boot to steer them home to only a second win in their last 15 matches against Australia, as well as potentially an easier path through the knockout stages.
“It was a really tough match,” said Wales coach Warren Gatland.
“We played well in first half and spoke at half time about continuing to play but they put us under a lot of pressure and had a lot of the ball. It became a typical Australia-Wales clash, coming down to the wire.”
Australia coach Michael Cheika, meanwhile, fumed about a penalty awarded against Samu Kerevi that was the first blow in a two-minute double whammy that resulted in Australia going into halftime 23-8 down.
“We just lost by a couple of points and it was a tight contest and that’s the way it goes some times,” he said in one of his few comments about the rest of the match, which earned his team a losing bonus point.
Wales had got off to a blistering start on a warm afternoon in the Japanese capital, turning over the ball from the kickoff and setting up Biggar to put three points on the board with a drop goal after 36 seconds.
It got even better for the Welsh after 13 minutes when, with the referee playing advantage, Biggar put in a crosskick and Parkes leapt above Marika Koroibete to grab the ball and touch down.
Biggar added the extras and missed another drop goal but Wales were increasingly struggling to contain the 17-stone (108kg) Samu Kerevi, and another charge from the big centre got the Australians to within striking distance.
With the referee again playing advantage, veteran flyhalf Bernard Foley put up a higher, shorter crosskick than Biggar’s but it found Adam Ashley-Cooper sprinting in from the right wing and the 35-year-old got past two defenders to score.
Foley missed the conversion but added a penalty before Biggar went off after taking a head knock while tackling Kerevi. Patchell came on and soon replied with a three-pointer from the tee to extend the lead to 13-8.
Three minutes later, in an incident that provoked plenty of debate, Kerevi was penalised near the halfway line for leading with his forearm as he charged into Patchell’s tackle.
The flyhalf converted the penalty off the post and, if that was a blow to Australia, a heavier one was to follow two minutes later when livewire Welsh scrumhalf Davies, reading the play perfectly, intercepted a pass from his opposite number Will Genia to sprint away and score.
Trailing 23-8 at the break, the Wallabies were desperate to score first in the second half but the errors continued and Wales edged three points further ahead when Patchell slotted his drop goal.
To’omua came on at flyhalf for Australia in place of Foley, though, and they finally got the passes to stick with a lovely sweeping move that finished with fullback Haylett-Petty touching down.
The Wallabies had their heads up and laid siege to the Wales line for a good 10 minutes until Hooper managed to force the ball through the line of red shirts and touch down for a converted try that cut the deficit to four.
To’omua and Patchell then traded penalties to set up a dramatic finale, with the last eight minutes played out in half-light after some of the floodlights failed.
Australia, who have beaten Wales in their last three World Cup meetings, launched themselves time and again at the Welsh line but they just could not find a gap and one final knock-on allowed Wales to cling onto the ball until the final gong.
“I heard a quote in the week ... about bringing out in the best in both teams,” said Alun Wyn Jones, who was playing his record 130th test for his country.
“We have had so many close games in the past and they usually do bring out the best in us.”
Reporting by Nick Mulvenney; editing by Tony Lawrence