Halfpenny states Lions case amid Welsh heartbreak
Wales 12 Australia 14
Wales may have slipped out of the top eight in the IRB world rankings after seven successive defeats, but on the evidence of their final match of a roller-coaster 2012 they are not suffering from a terminally bad side.
Indeed, had it not been for one minute of naivety (as Warren Gatland put it) out of 80, they would have been celebrating a famous victory.
As it is, none of the eight top nations will be greatly enamoured if they end up with a fixture against Wales in the World Cup draw, to be held today. Not that head coach Gatland or captain Sam Warburton were in the mood for consolation after Kurtley Beale's last-minute score snatched victory from their grasp.
"It's probably the hardest defeat I've had to take," Warburton said. "I am absolutely gutted. I felt like today was the day we were definitely going to do it."
Gatland said: "We put ourselves in a position where we should have won the match. We just needed to be a little bit smarter at the death. We showed a little bit of naivety."
Wales showed other failings, too: a laxity at the line-out and a struggle to get a grip at the breakdown, particularly in the first half, when the penalty count against them stretched into double figures. Still, with 11 players on the injured list, the credit far outweighed the debit.
Leigh Halfpenny was immense. It was his counter-attacking from deep that summoned back some of the Welsh mojo of last spring. It was his long-range goal-kicking (four penalties out of five) that kept the scoreboard ticking over for the home side.
And it was the 23-year-old full-back's fearless, last-line defending that kept the Wallabies at bay for 79 minutes, with try-saving tackles on Drew Mitchell and Berrick Barnes.
Sadly, when it came to the crunch of Australia's last-gasp break up the right, Halfpenny nailed Dave Dennis but could not stop the replacement flanker slipping a scoring pass to Beale. Still, the young Welsh warrior departed a stretcher after the kind of display that was the watching JPR Williams' trademark in the red No 15 battle dress. He was later released from hospital as, thankfully, his neck injury didn't prove as serious as first thought.
"I won't make any predictions in terms of the starting line-up for the Lions next summer because I am a big fan of Rob Kearney too," JPR said. "Still, I would go as far as saying that, fitness permitting, Leigh will be on the plane to Australia." (© Independent News Service)
Wales – L Halfpenny; Alex Cuthbert, J Davies, J Roberts, L Williams; R Priestland, M Phillips; G Jenkins, M Rees (K Owens 66), S Andrews; L Reed, L Charteris (R Jones 40); A Shingler, S Warburton, T Faletau (J Tipuric 60).
Australia – B Barnes; N Cummins (D Ioane 49), A Ashley-Cooper, B Tapuai (M Harris 59), D Mitchell; K Beale, N Phipps; B Robinson (J Slipper 62), T Polota Nau (S Moore 40), B Alexander (S Kepu 67); K Douglas (M Hooper 52), N Sharpe; S Higginbotham (D Dennis 16), D Pocock, W Palu.
Ref – W Barnes (England)