Australia, Wales share the spoils

HEROICS: Australia's Chris Latham seemed to have won the match with a stunning solo try, but James Hook scored a late penalty to level the score

AFP , CARDIFF

Mon, Nov 06, 2006 - Page 18

Australia coach John Connolly said it was too soon to say if his side had gained any valuable insight into World Cup pool opponents Wales after the teams played out a dramatic 29-29 draw at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.

The sides are due meet at the Millennium on Sept. 15 next year in a Pool B clash and before that match they will get to know each other better when Wales play two Tests on their off-season tour next year in Australia.

But after a thrilling contest that saw Wales score two tries and Australia four, Connolly stressed how much could happen between now and their next Cardiff clash.

"There are so many variables 12 months away," the experienced coach told reporters.

"Both sides are very similar. They each have four provinces and you saw what happened with Wales in the Six Nations when a number of their senior players were injured. The year before they had won it," he said.

Australia built a 17-6 lead on Saturday at the end of the first quarter after left wing Cameron Shepherd scored the first of two tries and Matt Giteau, moving to scrum-half in the absence of Wallaby captain George Gregan, rested for this tour, caught the home defense napping with an opportunist try.

But Giteau then missed a couple of penalties and although Wales had lost new captain Stephen Jones to a knee injury the fly-half's replacement, James Hook, had a memorable home debut.

The 21-year-old landed all five of his goalkicks and -- either side of half-time -- tries from Wales's Shane Williams and flanker Martyn Williams put the match back in the balance.

However, Australia regained the lead in spectacular fashion when full-back Chris Latham ran in from 50m and left Gavin Henson stranded on the turf for a brilliant solo try.

But the conversion was missed and Hook landed his third penalty three minutes from time to draw the scores level.

"At 17-6, we had numerous opportunities to put the nail in the coffin," Connolly said after what was the first draw in 24 matches between the sides.

The Wallabies might even have won the game at the death had not their scrum, described as their "Achilles heel" by Wales coach Gareth Jenkins and often a source of weakness in the past, let them down.

The Wallabies were deep inside Welsh territory when Wales's forwards wheeled their scrum and so reversed the put-in before clearing down field.

"We've got to take some ownership of that," said Australia captain and openside flanker Phil Waugh, "eighty seconds from the end of the game and we don't have our heads on."

The match was also disappointing for Stephen Jones when his first outing as captain of Wales was cut short in the 24th minute.

Now the British and Irish Lion is doubtful for Wales's Tests later this month at home to the Pacific Islands (next Saturday), Canada (Nov. 17) and New Zealand (Nov. 25).

"I am pleased we got the draw, but it was very disappointing for me," Jones said. "I have got to wait and see how the knee responds to treatment now and it is too early to say how long it will need to recover."

Jenkins, whose first two Tests in charge of Wales ended in defeats away to Argentina in June was still left searching for a win after his first international on home soil.

"We are pleased with the performance. They kept us on the back foot for long periods of the game and really tested our defense," Jenkins said.

"We haven't been together that long and there is plenty to work on. The Australians showed some top-class finishing and we have a much better understanding of where we are now," he said.

Australia fly-half-cum-center Stephen Larkham emerged from the match with a shoulder problem but the Wallaby management seemed far more concerned about giant lock Dan Vickerman's longstanding knee injury which could now need surgery.

The Wallabies face Italy next Saturday, play Ireland on Nov. 19 and conclude their European tour against Scotland on Nov. 25.