The Wallabies’ hopes of a breakthrough Rugby Championship win at Ellis Park have suffered a blow with a number of key players including Brumbies ace Christian Lealiifano sent home.
Australia have fallen to England 17-13 in the World Rugby Under-20 Championship and are out of the running for the tournament’s semi-finals.
The Australians led the English for 65 minutes but went down thanks to two late penalty goals.
The loss was the Aussies’ second from three pool games in Manchester, meaning they will now face Scotland again in the fifth-place playoff.
If they defeat Scotland, which they couldn’t do in their group encounter, they will likely take on New Zealand.
“We are disappointed that we could not get the required result against England and will once again have to face the battle for fifth,” said coach Adrian Thompson.
“We started the match well but took the pressure off in parts of the match and England capitalised on those errors.
“I was impressed with the team’s character to hang in there for the full 80 minutes but ultimately we need to be better at finishing our opposition off when we have the chance.
“We will dust ourselves off and get ready for an incredibly strong battle to finish fifth with New Zealand, Wales and Scotland.”
It is a disappointing end to what has been a disappointing tournament for the Under-20s.
Australia showed promise against England but mistakes and wobbles in the set piece cruelled their chances.
Australia couldn’t have started the first half at the AJ Bell Stadium any better, as England split the ball from the kick off and the green and gold scored three phases later.
It was a dream start after 28 seconds and Australia was 7-0 up, but England responded quickly, clawing a penalty back.
A real battle developed at scrum time and tensions boiled after England won one against the feed.
In the 27th minute the Aussies re-established their seven-point lead with another penalty goal, but England returned fire three minutes later to make it 10-6.
Australia had been starved off field position after the opening minute, but finally they started to enjoy some at the end of the first half. This resulted in another penalty – which Mack Mason slotted – and the Antipodeans went into the break 13-6 in front.
In the second half the handling errors grew, killing any rhythm or flow to the game.
In the 52nd minute the hosts’ fly-half Harry Mallinder grubbered in behind and centre Joe Marchant was first to the ball. It was a well-worked move and the score was now 13-11, with Mallinder unable to convert.
Australia had most of the running play, with England’s defence severely tested, but the men in white’s line speed stifled the Aussie attack.
The scrums maintained previous intensity, the young Wallabies struggling to keep their own feed. Often the referee changed his mind when making decisions at scrums, baffling both teams. But Australia’s discipline started to become a problem and penalties mounted up against them.
England missed one shot at goal but made no mistake in the 65th minute, Mallinder giving them a one-point lead.
The Aussie lineout was also creaking, depriving them of vital possession. An Australian error at the breakdown near their own line gave England another penalty and another three points.
Caught in their own half for the final quarter, the visitors ran out of time. 17-13 with seven minutes left seemed like a mountain to climb.
Essentially, Australia ran out of puff in the final 15 minutes, and England closed out the game efficiently.
Captain James Tuttle said after the match, “We took the foot off the throat there in the second half and that let England back into the game.
“They played smart, kicked some penalties and that let them back into the match.
“The boys have a lot of pride every time we put this jersey on and we know we are representing everyone back home. We’ll review and get ready for our next match.”
Two losses in three pool games is not good enough for Australia at this level, even considering the unpredictability of results at the Under-20 age group. The Aussies have finished fifth in the past two tournaments, in Italy and New Zealand, and seventh and eighth before that.
While the introduction of an Under-20 Super Rugby competition at home is a good start, it’s clear that more work in youth development needs to be done.
Follow John Davidson on Twitter @johnnyddavidson