SAINT ETIENNE – The Wallabies’ stay of execution has been extended another week after getting past Portugal 34-14 in their final World Cup pool match. It shapes as being one of their longest.
Despite moving one point clear of Fiji into second spot on Pool C on 11 points, their Pacific neighbours will leapfrog the Wallabies if they manage to secure a mere losing point against Portugal in their final group match.
The Wallabies, meanwhile, will have three days off before regrouping on Thursday and pray for a miracle despite Portugal being one of the great movers throughout this campaign after a gutsy 28-8 loss to Wales and a 18-18 draw to Georgia.
Should Fiji stumble against the world No.16 side the Wallabies would meet England in a quarter-final, but it seems a foregone conclusion that it will be Australia’s Super Rugby rivals that will head to Marseille in a week’s time. Not that Wallabies coach Eddie Jones is sweating.
“We only had one objective this week and that was to be alive and we are still alive,” Jones said.
“I am not interested in conjecture about Portugal and Fiji next week. I am pleased for the players. They’ve worked really hard, as they have all tournament, and they deserve some accolades for this performance today.
“We don’t have to worry about whether it’s a chance or not. We have a programme in place where we will have three days off regardless then we will have three days good training and we’ll look to get better. We want to finish next week better than we are now. That’s the aim.
“If we get an opportunity on the field, fantastic.”
The week of waiting will do little to quell the storm brewing back Down Under, with Rugby Australia’s administration facing a huge month to not just shore up their futures but also the game’s trajectory.
Every aspect of Australian rugby from the grassroots to Super Rugby, Jones and RA chairman Hamish McLennan, as well as whether the game must move towards a centralised system will come under scrutiny. Another review is the only certainty.
With Jones’ side all but out of the World Cup, rarely has the build-up to a Wallabies fixture felt as flat as the one leading up to their final Pool C fixture.
Their 20-point win however was anything but that, as the Wallabies walked into a cauldron where the Portuguese smelled blood and were roared on by a partisan crowd that booed Jones every time he was shown on the television on a raucous Sunday afternoon.
Yet, the frenetic and ill-disciplined nature of their win over Portugal – just their second win from nine Tests in 2023 – summed up the Wallabies’ wild campaign where the wheels all but came off.
The Wallabies led 24-7 at half-time, but two of Australia’s five-pointers came when the men in red were reduced to 14 men for a high shot on Izaia Perese.
Then, having moved to a 29-7 lead, the Wallabies fell to pieces after captain Dave Porecki – the sixth leader of their 2023 campaign – was replaced.
His replacement Matt Faessler was shown a yellow card after collapsing the maul in the 59th minute, before Samu Kerevi – a late call-up for the injured Carter Gordon – was also sent to the sin bin two minutes later for leading with his elbow in the carry in a repeat to that sorry afternoon in Tokyo four years ago against Wales.
While the Wallabies’ defence held on for the best part of 10 minutes, as they produced some extraordinary heavy-hitting, eventually Portugal struck in tight to reduce the deficit to 29-14 as Rafael Simoes scored after 70 minutes.
Marika Koroibete’s try four minutes later flattered the Wallabies, as they extended their lead to 34-14.
But the strain on the Wallabies and the lengths Jones’ side had to go to close this match out told a story of how much the men in gold had fallen not just over the past 12 months but 12 years.
“The disappointment is we haven’t controlled our own destiny,” said Jones, having been asked for his assessment of the entire campaign.
“In a pool stage you want to control your own destiny and we haven’t done that. As I’ve said, I take full responsibility for that.
“What am I pleased with? When I look at the squad and I look at the number of players that have improved individually then I am really pleased. A lot of these players have really bright futures, as this team does.
“If we keep sticking at it, keep working hard, keep focusing on what’s important then we will be a good team and won’t have this sombreness that’s around Australian rugby at the moment.”
Wallabies loosehead prop Angus Bell was one of his side’s best once again.
The 22-year-old carried like a tank in the middle of the field and on the fringes and scored his side’s third try of the first half. His front-row partner Porecki scored the Wallabies’ second and also put in a huge shift while James Slipper was busy on both sides of the ball.
Toulouse-lock Richie Arnold, who lost his second-row partner Nick Frost to a knee-injury early, rolled up the sleeves and delivered one of his best performances, while Fraser McReight and Rob Valetini were also strong.
Midfield pairing Lalakai Foketi and Izaia Perese also showed off their credentials, with the latter finally able to show his power and explosiveness in an eye-catching performance.
Fullback Andrew Kellaway also covered plenty of ground and was a calm and composed figure at the back during a messy afternoon.
After kicking everything in their own half during their opening three fixtures, the Wallabies showed that they were content to use the ball early against Portugal.
Their desire to use the ball allowed Ben Donaldson to step up and land the opening points in the third minute. While the decision to point to the sticks surprised many, Wales showed the value of scoreboard pressure a week earlier.
But it wasn’t long before Portugal showed off their attacking prowess, with the Europeans finding space out wide from their first movement off a lineout play. In doing so, they showed more variety off one set-piece play than the Wallabies did in four matches.
Anxieties were raised when Portugal’s outside centre Pedro Bettencourt finished off another lovely attacking raid.
However, his high shot on Perese turned the match as the Wallabies scored three quick tries through Arnold, Porecki and Bell. Even the rolling maul played its part.
The Wallabies looked likely to score another but bombed a movement on the stroke of half time.
It didn’t look like it would matter though as McReight finished off some neat work from Mark Nawaqanitawase to score out wide.
Then the ill-discipline returned, leading to Faessler being showed a yellow card.
While the Wallabies managed to deny Portugal, the loss of Kerevi to another brain explosion saw Jones leap from his seat and bark orders to his assistants. It was hardly the sight many would have imagined three months ago.
Simoes’ try was reward for effort, before Koroibete’s five-pointer got the Wallabies back on track.
With the atmosphere electric neither nation wanted to stop playing on a frenetic afternoon. But, as they say, all good things must come to an end. Whether it’s the end for the Wallabies remains to be seen.
“Today I am pleased for the players,” Jones said. “They played with a lot of toughness, a lot of character. At times we were clinical and at times we weren’t, which is where we need to improve. But I am really pleased for the players. That sums up my mood.
“Portugal have got a number of the French coaches and one of them came in and said what a wonderful game it was. There were 45,000 people, fantastic atmosphere. How good is this game of rugby! We are lucky to be involved. What a beautiful game.”