Wales survived a fierce second-half comeback from Australia to celebrate their greatest victory in a Rugby World Cup and take command of Pool D.
Their win in a pulsating encounter at Tokyo Stadium makes them very strong favourites to top the pool and means they are likely to avoid meeting England and New Zealand before the final.
Wales saw an 18-point lead whittled down to just one point with 12 minutes left but they held on to secure only their second victory over the Wallabies in 15 games.
Their first Rugby World Cup success – sealed with a kiss from winger George North on skipper Alun Wyn Jones – against one of the southern hemisphere big three for 32 years showed they are contenders.
“That was one of the toughest test matches they have played in a long, long time. But this team has grown up in terms of game management,” said head coach Warren Gatland. “They deserve a bit of a celebration tonight.
“We have learnt from the experiences of the past. We were under a lot of pressure in the second half but I think our composure and fitness showed at the end.
“The pool is in our destiny now, but we won’t be taking any of our opponents for granted. We know Fiji will be hurting in our next match. We have to remain clinical, that’s what top teams do.”
Australia looked a different side after a poor first half, which Wales led 23-8 after head coach Michael Cheika’s decision to recall the experienced half-back duo of Will Genia and Bernard Foley backfired.
All the talk beforehand was about the kicking threat of Wales’s outside-half Dan Biggar, but Gatland’s men showed right from off they were prepared to run the ball from deep.
Biggar gave them the perfect start with a drop goal inside the first minute. Then, on 13 minutes, from his cross-field chip centre, Hadleigh Parkes outjumped wing Marika Koroibete to score a try.
The Wallabies overturned an eight-point deficit in their opening game against Fiji and found some momentum as centre Samu Kerevi – looking a threat every time he had possession – punched a hole in the Wales defence.
Foley’s cross-field kick fell into the arms of recalled wing Adam Ashley-Cooper, who plunged over. But Foley missed a relatively simple conversion.
Fly-half Foley and Rhys Patchell swapped penalties. Patchell was on as a replacement for Biggar, who had a Head Injury Assessment (HIA) for a try-saving tackle on Kerevi that ended his game.
Kerevi was given a severe lecture from French referee Romain Poite for leading with a high arm as he ran at Patchell, who was tackling him high. Wales were awarded a penalty, a decision that mystified Cheika.
He said it was no different to the incident that led to Australia winger Reece Hodge being banned for a dangerous tackle against Fiji.
“As a rugby player, a former player, I am embarrassed here,” said Cheika of Patchell’s tackle.
“It was pretty funny because I thought I had seen that tackle before, it could have been Reece, I am not sure.
“When our guy makes that tackle and has the high tackle framework in his head, he gets suspended. This guy doesn’t think about the high tackle framework and we get penalised.”
Patchell added to Cheika’s annoyance by landing the long penalty off the inside of a post as the Australia supporters in the crowd booed the decision.
Soon after the restart scrum-half Gareth Davies, the Player of the match, intercepted opposite number Genia’s pass on his own 10-metre line to race in unopposed for a try that Patchell converted. The Scarlets player increased the lead to 18 points three minutes into the second half with a drop goal.
Cheika immediately responded by ending Foley’s afternoon to send on Matt Toomua. Suddenly, the Wallabies looked a more cohesive and dangerous outfit.
Toomua was involved several times in their best move of the match for full-back Dane Haylett-Petty to score a fine try. The replacement converted to reduce the arrears to 11 points.
Australia maintained the onslaught, winning a series of penalties, and the pressure finally told as Hooper burrowed his way over from close range with 18 minutes left. Toomua converted from in front of the posts and the lead was down to four points.
Toomua kicked a 68th-minute penalty to bring Australia – now in complete control – within one point, having scored 17 unanswered points in a devastating 23-minute spell.
Patchell responded four minutes later with a much-needed penalty. The floodlights went off briefly as Australia went in search of the game-winning try, but Wales held on in the final minutes and, pictured, celebrated a famous victory.
“We created a lot of momentum but you never know if the (comeback) will happen,” said Cheika. “My players produced a mighty effort for the 80 minutes but it was not to be. Now we have to move on to our next game.”
Source – Rugby World Cup