As Eddie Jones’s house of cards finally came crumbling down, it fittingly felt like death by a thousand paper cuts in Lyon rather than one swift blow that finished Australia off. It arguably made the pain even worse.
Jones and the Wallabies looked like helpless bystanders as Gareth Anscombe slotted penalty after penalty (and even a drop goal for good measure) and Wales calmly, methodically rode off into the distance. The final score was 40-6, a record Welsh winning margin of 34 points in this fixture, yet the victors didn’t even record a four-try bonus point as instead they broke Australian hearts piece by piece.
For the first time in Rugby World Cup history, the Wallabies have exited at the group stage and Jones looks destined to leave by that same door.
If the combative 63-year-old’s short, but disastrous, second spell in charge of his country does come to an end, as now appears inevitable, he will leave with a chilling 0 per cent win record against tier-one nations. Six matches, six losses and that doesn’t even include guiding them to a first loss to Fiji for 69 years.
Australian rugby may not have been in rude health when he retook the reins a few months ago but he has now led them to the lowest ebb in the sport’s history. Maybe expectations deserved to be tempered given what he inherited but he only had to look across to the opposing coach’s box to see what it is possible to achieve in a short amount of time despite dire circumstances.
Warren Gatland has led Wales from a Six Nations in which the game against arch-rivals England was just hours from being abandoned due to a player’s strike – amid the backdrop of sexism, racism, misogyny and homophobia scandals engulfing the Welsh Rugby Union – to likely top their World Cup pool for just the fourth time in history, with an eminently winnable quarter-final against Argentina or Samoa awaiting.
As bad as Australia were, Wales were equally brilliant. Efficient, professional, clinical and they’re building into this tournament nicely. The shoulder injury that forced Dan Biggar off after just 12 minutes is a big concern but Anscombe showed he is a more than capable fly half deputy as he drove the attack and kicked 23 points.
Jac Morgan produced a captain’s performance with a try, try assist and a 50:22 in addition to relentless breakdown and defensive work as the Welsh will rightly be eyeing a spot in the semi-finals.
The first cut of the day for Australia came hours before the game as the Sydney Morning Herald revealed that Jones was secretly interviewed by Japanese rugby officials just days before the World Cup about taking over as the country’s head coach. Despite having four years remaining on his current deal with the Wallabies, The Herald reported the 63-year-old is considering returning to Japan – who he coached from 2012 to 2015. This result surely makes that more likely despite initial denials from various parties.
Jones’s role as the pantomime villain of rugby continued in Lyon as he was vociferously booed when introduced pre-match and then every subsequent time he appeared on the big screen. By the end of the second half, it almost felt cruel.
Perhaps unsurprisingly with everything hanging over the Wallabies, they got off to the worst possible start as a neat lineout move saw George North puncture the line, before Morgan scythed through and freed Gareth Davies for a run-in under the posts and a 7-0 lead inside three minutes.
Yet after that early blow, the Wallabies actually settled into their work reasonably well for the remainder of the half.
Perhaps Jones’s biggest pre-match call was dropping Carter Gordon – the man he had previously anointed as his sole specialist fly half in the squad when leaving Quade Cooper and Bernard Foley at home – after a dismal performance in the defeat to Fiji, with Ben Donaldson switching from full back to the 10 jersey.
Donaldson kicked two straightforward penalties and the Australian attack looked much sharper than with Gordon pulling the strings, although a lot of their most incisive play came off Tate McDermott at No 9.
But while Donaldson’s boot twice got the men in gold on the scoreboard, three Wales penalties from a combination of Biggar and Anscombe, after Biggar went off with that worrying-looking shoulder injury, ensured an increased 16-6 advantage by half-time. Cut, cut, cut.
Sadly, things would only get worse for the Wallabies from there. By the 52nd minute when Gordon was thrown on to replace Donaldson in something that smelt like desperation, the score read 29-6 and the game was all but up.
Another Anscombe penalty had increased the lead before the No 10 produced a sumptuous chipped kick through the defence that Nick Tompkins raced on to and touched down.
Two more Anscombe penalties and a 70th-minute drop goal that felt like rubbing salt in those cuts followed before Gordon missed touch when going for the corner from a penalty as he kicked the ball dead instead to sum up Australia’s dismal evening.
They could barely muster any resistance as Morgan burrowed over for a well-deserved third try at the death and the Eddie Jones era surely ended with not a bang but a whimper.
As for where each team goes from here, Wales will feel like the sky’s the limit while the Wallabies have reached rock bottom. Those thousand cuts may take a long time to heal.