The Wallabies have stolen an incredible 23-21 victory over France in the first match of their three-Test series – but France will be left wondering what might have been after they blew a lead in the last minute.
France’s defence looked to have held the fast-finishing Wallabies at bay for good when a penalty inside the last 30 seconds had the contest effective sewn up for the tourists.
But, incredibly, the French turned the ball over on their own lineout deep in defence, with Tate McDermott swooping on a horrid inside ball to nobody and gifting the Wallabies a lifeline.
As shocking as the French mistake was, the Wallabies deserve full credit for fighting hard from that point – packing in 19 phases in two and a half minutes before an offside penalty set up Noah Lolesio for the easiest of winning penalty goals.
“The French have been courageous. They’ve been the better team for many parts of the game. But it was the Wallabies, in that newly minted golden jersey, that have hung tough and in the 83rd minute haven’t given up kept fighting keep staying in the game and got the result,” said former Wallabies forward Morgan Turinui on the Stan Sport coverage.
His co-commentator Justin Harrison was losing it in the excitement at the finish.
“They were fighting so much fatigue there at the end of the game, forwards working hard, head knocks, all sorts of things. Stars in their eyes, big unicorns floating around your head making sure you’re in control of possession and putting the French team to the sword in the very last minute.
“We said it might come down to the last kick – it came down to the last line out. Darcy Swain take a bow putting pressure on the delivery.”
The Wallabies looked to be in for a long and painful evening in the first half. Simple errors plagued the home side in the first 20 minutes, including a Tom Banks penalty kick that failed to find touch, a lost scrum with the feed and Noah Lolesio fumbling a high kick, gave the French plenty of opportunities to score – which they took.
Gabin Villiere had himself a quick double, slicing through fairly ordinary defence on both occasions either side of a Louis Carbonel penalty goal, to put France up 15-0.
Harrison praised the French forwards for their early dominance – particularly after Villiere’s first try.
“Every French forward owned that try. They got the turnover in the scrum and every forward has got that little bit faster and stronger for Les Bleus after that phase of play,” he said.
But some poor discipline began to creep into France’s game late in the half, to the point where referee Brendon Pickerill was forced to pull French captain Anthony Jelonch aside.
It was one of those many penalties that really allowed the Wallabies back in the contest. An attacking lineout deep in French territory allowed the forwards to strike what Turinui called a “much needed psychological blow” in barging Brandon Paenga-Amosa over the line for a crucial try.
From there, the home side looked by far the most likely to score again before the half – but couldn’t make any further inroads into the eight-point deficit.
The Wallabies picked up where they left off early in the second half – and so did the undisciplined visitors.
Another French penalty for not releasing the ball allowed Lolesio to slot a penalty goal and bring Australia back to within five points.
But then it was Australia’s turn to earn Pickerill’s ire after a penalty of their own – allowing Carbonel to put France back up by eight.
A superb kick from Hunter Paisami in the the 55th minute looked certain to result in a Wallabies try, but Tom Wright copped the unluckiest of bounces in the in-goal area and the opportunity passed.
Harrison in the commentary box, however, thought Wright could have done more to score.
“He held off. He sat up waiting for it to bounce,” he said. “Get on that like it’s loose change in the canteen line. Get all over it!”
From there, the sides continued to trade penalty goals – Noah Lolesio’s second putting the Wallabies back within five and a tough kick nailed by Melvyn Jaminet getting the French back out by eight.
France were happy to play cautiously and just eat time off the clock, but their continued penalty troubles and error-riddled play gave the Wallabies a sniff.
Australia looked no certainty to make the visitors pay, until a moment of individual brilliance from skipper Michael Hooper proved the circuit breaker. With several Wallabies players making desperate dives at the French try line, Hooper turned his back to the defenders before collecting the ball and backing over the line for an equally clever and crucial try.
The Wallabies could smell blood from that point. While a Lolesio penalty looked to give the French a lifeline, the visitors handed the ball back straight away and then gave away a penalty on the ensuing scrum.
But they couldn’t land the killing blow. Noah Lolesio’s late attempt a a field goal was well off to the right, before Paisami overcooked his kick to Andrew Kellaway breaking down the right wing – sending it out on the fly.
That should have ended the contest, but the rugby gods clearly had other ideas.
Wallabies – 23
France – 21
Wallabies: Brandon Paenga-Amosa 34′, Michael Hooper 71′
France: Gabin Villiere 6′, 21′
Wallabies: Noah Lolesio 2/2
France: Louis Carbonel 1/2
Wallabies: Noah Lolesio 3/3 (44′, 60′, 83′)
France: Louis Carbonel 2/2 (19′, 52′), Melvyn Jaminet (62′)