The Wallaroos have booked themselves a World Cup quarter-final berth after stampeding through Wales 13-7 in Whangarei to secure their second-successive win of the tournament and lock themselves into the tournament’s final eight.
Iliseva Batibasaga’s first-half try, eight points from Lori Cramer’s boot and a dominant display at the breakdown were the cornerstones of the victory, as the Wallaroos build crucial momentum in their quest to dethrone New Zealand’s all-conquering Black Ferns on home turf and win their first World Cup at this ninth staging of the event.
But they had to do it the hard way, with a try-less final 75-minutes and a final nine minutes with just 14-afield, when debutante Kaitlan Leaney was sent to the sin bin.
The Wallaroos had taken the field without hooker Ashley Masters who was suspended after being red carded for a dangerous tackle in the first round victory over Scotland and they suffered another blow on match eve when lock Atasi Lafai was ruled out with an ankle injury. It brought Grace Kemp in, while Michaela Leonard and Ivania Wong were recalled to the starting side and Leaney named to debut from the bench.
Although Wales had been demolished 56-12 in their Test against New Zealand, the scoreline blow-out belied the trouble their forwards caused the defending champions. Even so Wales fumbled the start and conceded a penalty from the kick-off. Australia capitalised, building pressure with fast ruck speed as Grace Hamilton then captain Shannon Parry and Adiana Talakai drove it to the line, allowing halfback Batibasaga to dart through a gap and cross untouched to make it 7-0 after five minutes.
After 15 minutes Australia were ahead on the scoreboard and dominating possession with 71% of the ball. Wales had already made 67 energy-sapping tackles and coughed up too many penalties. And a tactic of grubber kicking from fullback Niamh Terry and centre Carys Williams-Morris had simply gifted the Wallaroos more possession.
But the Welsh set-piece that had so infuriated the Black Ferns now began to purr. After a good shove in the scrum, a line-out win set up Jasmine Joyce for a burst down the left and a penalty. Wales kicked to the corner rather than the posts and the gamble paid dividends when big No 8 Sioned Harries crashed over from close range to become Wales’ third all-time leading try-scorer with 28 behind Non Evans on 37.
Elinor Snowsill’s conversion went through off the post to level the scores 7-all but Australia quickly rallied, as Arabella McKenzie and Hamilton made bullocking charges to set the Wallaroos up for what seemed a certain try. But in a cruel twist, referee Sara Cox accidentally impeded Batibasaga’s easy pass to a three-player overlap outside.
It cost Australia a certain try but they held a clear ascendency, with Wales tiring under the duress of 136 tackles while Australia had made just 34. In the shadows of halftime, those extra tackles showed when teenage wing sensation Bienne Terita, already the scorer of five tries in her first three Tests, burst through three defenders and looked certain to cross before Jasmine Joyce’s desperate cover tackle saved Wales again.
Australia did get some reward for their dominance when a late scrum penalty allowed Cramer to kick them three points clear and make it 10-7 at the break.
After 10 minutes of scrum collapses and no further score in the second half, McKenzie broke the Welsh line only for Welsh flanker Alex Callender’s crucial tackle to diffuse another near-try. Australia were actively looking for the killer blow and injected bulldozer tight-head prop Eva Karpani, last week’s player of the match, to deliver it.
But the stalemate continued, despite Australia’s back row running riot. Both teams squandered attacking penalties as Wales grimly hung on and Wallaroo frustration grew. Finally the women in red inched back into the Wallaroos half and went for the line… only for Australia’s flanker Emily Chancellor to intercept Snowsill’s pass. But just as the stadium leapt to its feet, she knocked-on with open pasture in front of her.
The match took a fresh twist late when debutante Leaney was almost red-carded but referee Cox judged that Wales’ Callender had dipped her head into the tackle. Still, the ensuing yellow card left Australia with only 14 players for the closing stages.
With five minutes to go, an exhausted Wales seemed content to hope that a losing bonus point might sneak them into the quarter-finals. The waver in intensity cost them as Australia won a penalty in the 77th minute and Cramer slotted it for 13-7 to snuff Wales and grind out a famous Wallaroos victory and a quarter-final berth.
“It’s massive to be in the quarter-finals, this group has come a long way since the start of the year and that was the first box we wanted to tick,” Australian captain Shannon Parry reflected after the siren, as teammate and turnover queen Grace Hamilton was named player of the match.
“Really proud of the girls today to guts out that win against Wales. We’ve been working really hard on our defence system and it’s really good to see it pay off today.”
Providing South Africa do not shock England on Sunday, Wales will progress to the quarter-finals and could face hosts New Zealand, who thrashed Scotland 57-0 later on Saturday. The hosts stormed to a dominant victory in Whangarei, scoring seven tries to lead 45-0 at half-time before adding two more in a tighter second period.
Renee Holmes and Renee Wickliffe both scored braces for the Black Ferns to end Scotland’s hopes of reaching the knockout stages. “We got caught cold a little bit, but second half we kept the ball so much better. It shows what they’re all about,” the Scotland head coach, Bryan Easson, told BBC Sport after the game.
France secured their quarter-final place with a 44-0 victory over Fiji. Pauline Bourdon scored two tries as France bounced back from defeat to England and underlined their title credentials.