"Proudest I've ever been": The remarkable inside story of how the Wallabies held off Wales with 13 men

Rugby World Cup
by Iain Payten

It doesn’t get replayed like a Larkham drop kick or a Horan try but seven minutes in the Wallabies’ pool win over Wales in the 2015 should be remembered as one of Australia’s finest moments in Rugby World Cups.

In their last pool round clash against Wales, the Wallabies were leading 12-6 when they lost two men to the sin bin midway through the second half.

Australia, with just 13 men for seven minutes, defended their line with desperation and held Wales out. They went on to win the game 15-6, and pushed through the playoffs all the way to the finals.

Ahead of another massive Wallabies-Wales World Cup pool game in Tokyo on Sunday, RUGBY.com.au spoke with several 2015 Wallabies, and one ex-Wallaby sideline commentator, who were in the thick of the action that day at Twickenham. Their is how it unfolded.

THE GAME

By virtue of three early pool game wins, and England having already been knocked out of finals contention, the Wallabies had already qualified for the 2015 World Cup playoffs by the time they came up against Wales on October 10 at Twickenham. 

But the winner of the Australia-Wales clash would go on to face Scotland in the quarter-finals, and not South Africa.

STEPHEN MOORE (Wallabies captain): "We knew England and Wales would be our major games in the pool stage and that’s been well documented. And Fiji as well. So we treated each of those games with finals intensity and I think you have to do that.

"In terms of Wales specifically, it’s not that dissimilar to the way they’re playing at the moment. They like to play with structure but they also have some really exciting backs who can cut you up, if you give them the opportunity. So I recall we focussed pretty heavily on defence. We knew how hard it would be.”

The game was typically tight, and Bernard Foley’s boot had done all the point-scoring for the Wallabies as the game passed the 51 minute mark. 

Australia led 12-6 but Wales were building some dominance in the second half.

DEAN MUMM (Wallabies lock): "I remember being under a mountain of pressure but also having just no territory. I felt like for such a long period. Any time we would get relief, relief was about to 40 metres and then we’d get squeezed back down to pretty much our own line. 

"And I can’t remember why but it must have been through ill-discipline, giving them access. We had a lot of line outs five metres out, which means there mist have even couple of penalties there. But also just the heat. You are under a lot of pressure.”

In the 56th minute, referee Craig Joubert penalises Adam Ashley-Cooper for being offside at the ruck and Wales halfback Gareth Davies takes a quick tap. Wallabies halfback Will Genia is back on a few metres and tackles Davies on instinct. Joubert blows up play and calls Genia over.

"You are not close to being ten metres, cynical offence,” Joubert says, and he pulls out a yellow card.

56th minute: WALES 15 MEN, WALLABIES 14 MEN

MOORE: "We had practiced a fair bit at training being one man down, in terms of dealing what things present themselves. But we’d prepared being down men in the scrum, for example.”

Wales kept up the pressure and in the 58th minute, Welsh no.8 Talupe Faletau managed to cross the Australian line with a close charge. But he dropped the ball in the act of scoring. Wales had the advantage though, and kicked to the corner.

Joubert delivered a general warning to Moore that there’d been too many penalties and another one would see another card.

MUMM: "You are always across general warnings, and you know it's happening anyway. You know when you give away enough penalties in that area of the field, the general warning, particularly at the back end of the game, that it is not far away.

“But at the same time you can’t just back off, from five metres out, and not take risks to either stop a try or just give them opportunities. And that for me, was choosing that instead of staying on the ground at that lineout that’d I’d get up and contest. Put some pressure on in the air.”

Five metres out, Wales lock Alun Wyn-Jones wins the jump at two and Mumm is late to the contest. He throws an arm around Wyn-Jones and plays him in the air.

MUMM: "It won’t go down in the hall of fame for foul play. I can’t recollect the exact moment and I doubt I have watched the game since. You just tend move on in a World Cup and focus on whatever is next.”

Wales lose the ball and Joubert pumps his whistle again. He pulls out Mumm, shows him a yellow and says: "Playing the man in the air, repeated infringements by your team.”

59th minute: WALES 15 MEN, WALLABIES 13 MEN.

MUMM: "I remember it being on the far side of the field at Twickenham so I remember it being a long run off the field. The other thing is yellow card timings don’t start until you sit down in the chair and I remember it being told to us before the World Cup: ‘Don’t walk and dawdle your way to the sideline, get on your bike because the game moves on but the timer only starts when you sit down.'

"It was a horrible feeling. Any yellow card is a horrible feeling but going down to 13, when you’d been under that heat, yeah, not good.”

Back on the field, Moore didn’t have time for a huge speech. He just kept the message simple. However you manage it, don’t let them score.

MOORE: "Firstly, we just tried to get everyone to stay calm. You can lose your cool in those situations but that doesn’t really help. All I said was “if someone is front of you, just tackle them. Let’s do our best to stop them getting over the line.”. You really just use your tryline as a base.

"It was do whatever you have to because sometimes when you’re down to 13, your structures go out the window. You just have to do the best you can with what you’ve got.

"We knew in that instance, obviously maul defence would be very important. We were trying to resource the maul as best we could, knowing that would expose some gaps elsewhere. When you’re down to 13, there will be space somewhere but it is up to the attack to find that space."

"It was about everyone staying calm, and using simple messages. We talked about that a lot in the build up to that campaign and that’s where that comes home to roost. When you talk about defending your try line with your life. That’s where it happens.”

The Wallabies had to survive seven minutes with 13 men in a game where being down one man is an almost fatal blow. Test rugby teams are almost always ruthlessly efficient in finding the empty space and scoring. The Wallabies would have to find something special.

DREW MITCHELL (Wallabies winger): “It was just down to everyone looking at each other and rolling up the sleeves. And that’s where all the stuff you’d done before the World Cup was so important.

“You'd go to camps and we did heaps of very hard training where you’re just hammered and you’re running up a hill holding hands with the next bloke so you can’t get any arm drive, and you’re thinking: ‘what possible good could this provide, what are we doing?’.

"We did so much of that, running up hills at Manly and all the rest. At the end of a training session Cheik would throw in something that was brutal and put in a dark place, and it was always some variation a team thing. So the way to get through was to drag your mate through and he would drag you through.

"I obviously was never a huge fan of that stuff when you’re doing it, but they never do something for no reason, and suddenly you’re down to 13 men in a World Cup game.

You realise we have to work together to get through this and all that training just puts you in a perfect spot. You already know you’re gonna do whatever you can for your mate, and he’ll do the same for you. You’ve been there before.”

Wales stayed camped in the Australian quarter, throwing wave after wave of attack at the Wallabies’ line. It held firm until the 63rd minute when George North was finally given space on the right wing. He stepped inside Bernard Foley but the no.10 got enough on - along with Ben McCalman over the top - to trip North up.

The big Wales winger got up to drive a metre more to the line but McCalman got under him and the ball. It was a remarkable hold up.

MOORE: “It came down to the individual being desperate, just wanting to cover for their mate. And not let anyone get the ball down, and there were several instances of that throughout.”


MITCHELL: "It was funny I was giving Jamie Roberts lip, saying 'we’re a rugby league team right now and you still can’t score’. I’d played with Jamie for the BaaBaas and he’s a mate. But yeah you could sense they were searching for that space on the field, and just waiting for the moment where we’d be too stretched. And they got close a few times but the boys were desperate and threw themselves into the right spots to hold them out.”

ROD KAFER (ex-Wallaby and FoxSports sideline commentator): "Wales fell into the trap of thinking all they had to do was get to the edges and they’d score, and the Wallabies just worked really, really hard. And when when you defend like that, it relies on the blokes who aren’t around the ball to work really hard. 

"What was happening was the blokes who were in the middle of the field were just working so hard, side to side, side to side, and the guys on the edge could then rely on them covering."

In the final play before Genia’s card ten minutes expired, and Nick Phipps came on, Wales had one more good crack at the line. Liam Williams steamed on a hard carry just a metre out, but Moore chopped his legs and Kane Douglas again held the Welshman up.


67th minute: WALES 15 MEN, WALLABIES 14 MEN

MUMM: "It shouldn’t be a realistic expectation in modern footy that 13 blokes can defend their line, I wouldn’t think. But somehow the pressure was on them as well, which sounds odd when you’re 15 on 13. The longer it goes when you are not scoring, the pressure almost starts to come back on you.

"Because you’re like ‘we should be scoring, why aren’t we scoring here?’. 

"There was Dog’s tackle, Swoop was incredible in defence as well, those key moments when they should have scored, when you get two or three of those in a row, it puts the pressure back one them. And then they started to make uncharacteristic decisions, and that was a result of the pressure coming back on them.

"That’s the fascinating bit about a situation like that. The pressure can flip really, really quickly. They haven’t scored when we’re at 13, and then willy comes back on and they still haven't scored when we go back to 15, they’re like 's**t, we have blown it’."

In the 68th minute, Wales remained on the attack and they fired the ball wide. Ashley-Cooper raced up from centre to smother no.10 Dan Biggar, and in his first play on the field, reserve back Kurtley Beale latched onto the ball. Bigger was penalised for not releasing and the Wallabies cheered like man men.

MOORE: "Probably the telling piece was Kurtley got the turnover at the end, and that was the end, really. That was the final shift.”

KAFER: "Wales fell into the trap of thinking “we’ve got two men up, we’ll just go edge to edge and we’ll score”. But our blokes were just better than them."

The Wallabies kicked downfield to clear their territory, and Mumm returned to the field a minute later.

69th minute: WALLABIES 15 MEN, WALES 15 MEN

Three minutes later the Wallabies won a penalty in front of the sticks and Foley kicked another penalty. The Wallabies were up 15-6, and Wales’ spirit was sunk. Australia would win by 15-6.

KAFER: "I remember after the game I went to go and speak to Greysie (defence coach Nathan Grey), to congratulate him on how well they played. I was so overcome with emotion I went to shake his hand, I had to actually walk away again.

"In all of my time commentating it was probably the proudest I have ever been of a Wallaby team I’d seen play. The players, under enormous pressure, just the resolve and the self-belief that they had, that they could hold Wales out, was unbelievable.”

MUMM: "Everyone was relieved, and definitely me. Of course. I remember everyone was huge ups for 'Dog' (McCalman) and his tackle but also just the collective, it was a showing of resilience. We had fought through something that we shouldn’t have been able to survive. 

"It was that sort of feeling, and that was all part of it. You go into a tournament with a certain level of belief but those moments, they just give you so much more. You have the spinnaker up and you’re down wind from that stage."

MOORE: "After the game I remember talking about the fact we had prepared for that. And that’s what happens in World Cups. You see all these things happen mid-week, like the stuff with Reece Hodge. There’s all these types of things you have to be half-ready for."

MITCHELL: "It’s funny because World Cups always have those defining moments, don’t they? That effort will never be as famous as the Bernie kick or whatever, or Campo and Timmy Horan, and be replayed over and over. But if you ask anyone from that team, that’ll be one of the most special moments from that World Cup campaign, for sure.

"You tend to just keep moving on in a World Cup and focussing on the next thing, but over time you reflect on the games or the moments in games that kind of sum up your campaign and the sort of team you were and the spirit you had, and that 13-man defence against Wales, that was the 2015 Wallabies right there. No question.”