A courageous Australia threw everything they had at the world’s best rugby side, scoring breathtaking tries and marshalling bravely in defence. But again, ill-discipline and 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 Stade de France.
Against an all-conquering French team on a 10-Test winning streak, Australia took the game by the scruff of the neck from the get-go, Nic White’s charge down in the opening minute showing the Wallabies’ intent to pressure Les Bleus and diffuse White’s opposite number, Antoine Dupont, 2021 World Rugby’s Player of the Year.
Dave Rennie’s men were always going to attack from open play but this Test, the 51st between the nations in 95 years of fierce rivalry, would be won in the clinches. ‘Le melee’ is where Les Bleus thrive, yet in the first scrum Australia’s front-row held firm and straight and France’s buckled and slid. It won a penalty Bernard Foley converted for 3-0. Straight away Australia gave the penalty back and Thomas Ramos made it 3-3.
Resurgent Wallabies tight-head Taniela Tupou was deep in 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 for 6-3. But when Hooper was taken late, Foley squared it up at 6-6.
Australia’s fluency in attack was surprising but even then cute passes and cutouts were going awry. But their defence was holding firm as France dominated the breakdown and slowly won the bigger moments at the collision. Finally it told, as Charles Ollivon found the stripe. However, a minute later replays showed a second movement. No try.
But Foley fumbled the let-off, missing the touchline, and France attacked, chipping over the top. Foley bravely batted it back to Len Ikitau who dared to go wide, unleashing Tom Wright to blaze down the line. He swerved inside and found Lalakai Foketi who then raced 40 metres to score a sensational try.
Now 13-6 up, Australia barrelled forward again, kicking high and chasing hard. France kept drilling it out of their own half to gift Australia possession 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 closed, Ikitau’s cheeky inside-kicks kept Les Bleus guessing.
Although Dupont was being 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 calamity. A panicked pass from Foley went behind his man. France swooped and surged 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, undid the good with silly mistakes, needless turnovers and dumb penalties to go from 13-9 up with four minutes left to trail 19-13.
In the second half, both sides advanced their cause on penalty kicks to make it 22-16. As France introduced an all-new front row from the bench in the 53rd minute, Australia countered, unleashing 140kg monster Will Skelton from the pine. He made an immediate impact, winning a penalty to put Australia on the attack.
Australia won the lineout and inched it forward in the maul. Rather than batter the French barricades, White went right and Australia found space out 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 front, 23-22 at the hour mark.
Australia kept testing the thinning blue line and it paid off when the tired French infringed. Foley took the points and with 15 minutes to play held a 26-22 advantage.
Buoyed by a roaring 60,000-strong Stade de France crowd, the French mounted fresh raids. Twice they spurned three to chase seven but each time the French went to their heavy artillery, the Australian resistance swarmed to jolt the ball free.
France closed the gap to a solitary point through Ramos but just as the game was there to be iced, Rennie made the surprise decision to sub his Iceman Foley, for Reece Hodge to close out the game outside Jake Gordon. A French high-shot gifted Hodge a penalty goal from out wide for 29-25. But with five minutes to go, French winger Damian Penaud exposed Hodge, then Gordon, 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 throw on the halfway was judged askew, Australian heads dropped 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 yield. They won a counter-shove and rolled it forward. But then a clutch moment as Jonathan Danty forced a turnover of his own. France celebrated; Australia slumped.
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. One more opportunity gone and chance to win two-straight blown. Another golden victory turned to ash.
“They’re a good side. We gave them opportunities late and couldn’t control territory late in the game and they stung us,” coach Rennie mourned. “I thought we defended well last week, and that our defensive maul was excellent and we did that again tonight. It’s a different game here, there’s a lot more kicking. We made a lot of tackles compared to France. Proud of the effort but the boys will be hurting in the shed.”