A gutsy Australia threw everything they had at the world’s best rugby team, scoring breathtaking tries and rallying bravely in defence. But again, poor discipline and an inability to seize the big moments cost the Wallabies dearly as they lost a Test they should have won, falling to France 30-29 at the Stade de France.
Against an all-conquering French side on a 10-Test winning streak, Australia took the game by the scruff of the neck from the start, Nic White’s charge down in the opening minute showing the Wallabies’ intent to press Les Bleus and diffuse White’s opposite number, Antoine Dupont, 2021 World Rugby’s Player of the Year .
Dave Rennie’s men would always attack from open play but this Test, the 51st between the nations in 95 years of bitter rivalry, would be won in clinches. “Smile Melee” that’s where Les Bleus thrive, but in the first scrum, Australia’s front row held steady and straight and France tensed and slid. It won a penalty Bernard Foley converted to make it 3-0. Australia immediately returned the penalty and Thomas Ramos made it 3-3.
Resurgent Wallabies tight-head Taniela Tupou was deep into the game, pulling off big tackles to repel the giant French forwards. With no way through, France went to the air and when the Wallabies were late to help Dave Porecki on the ground. Ramos punished them 6-3. But when Hooper was caught late, Foley made it 6-6.
Australia’s fluency in attack was surprising but even then sweet passes and cutouts went awry. But their defense held firm as France dominated the breakdown and slowly won the bigger moments on the collision course. In the end it told, when Charles Ollivon found the stripe. But a minute later the replays showed a second movement. No attempt.
But Foley fumbled the release, missed the touchline, and France pounced, chipping over the top. Foley bravely hit back to Len Ikitau who dared to go wide and released Tom Wright to fire down the line. He swung inside and found Lalakai Foketi who then ran 40 meters to score a sensational try.
Now 13-6 up, Australia tunneled forward again, kicking high and chasing hard. France continued to drill it out of their own half to give possession to Australia who played kick-to-kick for a while before reverting to the Wallaby Way – ball in hand, all out attack. Even when the cover attack was shut down, Ikitau’s cheeky inside kicks kept Les Bleus guessing.
Although Dupont was monstered by Nic White at the breakdown and Michael Hooper and Rob Valetini were everywhere in defence, further Wallabies ill-discipline gifted Ramos penalties in the 32nd and 37th minutes to make it a one-point margin.
Then came the accident. A panicked pass from Foley went behind his man. France swept and stepped to the line, Julien Marchand eventually rumbling over under the posts. It was a heartbreaker for the Wallabies. They had played the better rugby for most of the half but, as has become their habit, they took away the good with silly mistakes, needless turnovers and stupid penalties to go 13-9 up with four minutes to go after 19- 13.
In the second half, both sides advanced their cause on penalties to 22-16. When France introduced a brand new front row from the bench in the 53rd minute, Australia countered and unleashed 140kg monster Will Skelton from the pine. He made an immediate impact and won a penalty to put Australia on the attack.
Australia won the lineout and advanced it in the maul. Instead of beating the French barricades, White went right and Australia found space wide, freeing new fullback Jock Campbell to pin his ears back and crash over for his first try in national colours. Foley added the extras to put Australia back in the lead, 23-22 after the hour.
Australia continued to test the thin blue line and it paid off as the tired French made inroads. Foley took the point and with 15 minutes left had a 26-22 advantage.
Aided by a roaring 60,000-strong Stade de France crowd, the French made further raids. Twice they rejected three to chase seven, but each time the French went to their heavy artillery, the Australian opposition swarmed to yank the ball free.
France reduced the gap to a solitary point through Ramos, but just as the game was there to be iced, Rennie made the surprise decision to put on his Iceman Foley for Reece Hodge to finish the game off Jake Gordon. A French high shot gave Hodge a penalty out of bounds to make it 29-25. But with five minutes remaining, French winger Damian Penaud exposed Hodge, then Gordon and then Wright to go over in the corner. Ramos missed the conversion but it was still 30-29 with three minutes left.
When Folau Fainga’a’s lineout on halfway was adjudged lopsided, Australian heads fell and hearts sank. But again, showing the character that won them Tests against England and South Africa in the home series, the Wallabies refused to concede. They won a counter push and rolled it forward. But then a clutch moment when Jonathan Danty forced a turnover of his own. France celebrated; Australia was devastated.
Last week the Wallabies won a Test they shouldn’t have against Scotland, ill-discipline exposing them to a defeat they luckily avoided. This week they lost a test they deserved to win against the hottest team in world rugby. Another chance gone and the chance to win two in a row blown. Another golden victory turned to ashes.
“They are a good side. We gave them chances late and couldn’t control the territory late in the game and they stung us,” lamented coach Rennie. “I thought we defended well last week and our defensive maul was excellent and we did it again tonight. It’s a different game here, it’s a lot more kick. We made a lot of tackles compared to France. Proud of the effort but the boys will be sore in the shed.”
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