The Wallabies scored a hard-fought 21-18 win over Wales in the Rugby World Cup third-place playoff match in Auckland on Friday night as some consolation after a misfiring tournament.
Tries in the 10th minute from inside centre Berrick Barnes and 76th minute to No.8 Ben McCalman bookended another lacklustre performance by Australia, with James O’Connor adding three penalties and a conversion to seal the victory and with it the bronze medal.
The Wallabies showed intent to play an expansive game early on, but when fullback Kurtley Beale and five-eighth Quade Cooper left the field through injury in the first 25 minutes, Australia adopted a more conservative approach.
Beale exited after just nine minutes with a recurrence of a hamstring injury that has blighted his tournament, but just a minute later, Cooper’s flat ball close to the Welsh line sent Barnes under the posts untouched.
Wales five-eighth James Hook kicked a penalty in the 20th minute to reduce the deficit to 7-3, but moments later, Australia’s injury curse struck again when Cooper – who started the match in a more effervescent mood – attempted an elaborate right-foot step that left him lying on the ground in agony with a suspected cruciate ligament tear.
Both sides missed penalty attempts before the break, with poor handling and wayward passing making for a below-par spectacle and the teams headed for the sheds with the Wallabies leading 7-3.
Wallabies second-rower Nathan Sharpe, who led the side out in his 100th Test match, left the field in the 46th minute after falling awkwardly on his right knee in the fourth minute and was replaced by Rod Simmons.
Sharpe’s departure sparked a Welsh fightback, with referee Wayne Barnes missing a glaring forward pass from Hook after a turnover on halfway.
Opportunistic Welsh winger Shane Williams pounced, skilfully toeing the ball through to score near the left touchline and in the process putting his side in front 8-7.
However, a 42-metre penalty from O’Connor in the 51st minute put the Wallabies back in front and when the winger landed another just five minutes later, the Wallabies had built a handy 13-8 advantage.
In the 68th minute, Barnes – who excelled at five-eighth after Cooper’s injury – booted a field goal which sailed high in the air and just scrapped over the crossbar to put the Wallabies out by more than a converted try.
Wales edged closer a minute later when James Hook’s replacement, retiring veteran Stephen Jones, kicked an easy penalty to set up a tense finale.
However, McCalman put the game out of reach of the Welsh, grabbing his five-pointer with an untouched 10-metre run after some good lead-up work from prop James Slipper and replacement hooker Saia Faingaa.
Wales retained possession for 25-plus phases in the closing minutes that was rewarded when fullback Leigh Halfpenny crossed for an extra-time try which was converted by Jones.
Australia’s win was their first at Eden Park since 1986 and meant the two-time champions claimed their first bronze at the World Cup after losing 22-21 to Wales in the playoff for third place at the inaugural 1987 tournament, also played in New Zealand.
Cooper’s injury ended a forgettable tournament for the Kiwi-born playmaker and he looks certain to miss Australia’s tour of the United Kingdom that will feature games against Wales and the Barbarians.