The Wallabies have claimed six wins on the trot for the first time since 2005, but Mon Dieu, they did it the hard way, winning 6-0 in an Etihad Stadium oddity.
The promise of free-flowing, uncompromising rugby shown by the Wallabies in Brisbane was not enough to bring Melburnians out in their droves, with a sparsely populated crowd of 27,189 greeting the teams at a near freezing Docklands.
In a week where Australia got a new captain in Michael Hooper, it was an old one, James Horwill, who led the hosts onto Etihad Stadium, the former captain claiming his 50th cap for the Wallabies.
Bernard Foley kicked off, setting in action a frenzied opening five minutes. Australia were returned the ball immediately, and Israel Folau and Nick Cummins had shots at the French line. The visitors were up to the challenge, showing orders of magnitude more grit and determination at the breakdown than in Brisbane. Thierry Dusautoir almost manufactured a magical try with an intercept, but the resulting kick to the line was recovered by Foley.
The battle at the breakdown was immense, and there were early casualties, Brice Dulin taken high by a clattering James Horwill tackle. The milestone man could probably count himself lucky to have only received a warning for his troubles.
Australia conceded a penalty in the 17th minute when James Horwill came in from the side of a tackle, France taking the kick for the first time in an effort to open the scoring. Brice Dulin missed just to the left of the post.
Both teams were favouring the high ball to allow time for the line to catch up. The main difference was elsewhere in attack, Australia relying to Matt Toomua to kick for position in times of pressure, whereas France adopted a running game early, one that was constantly cruelled by handling errors.
The best chance of the opening stanza was in the 22nd minute, when after a period of kick to kick, Australia ran with ball in hand and visibly pressured the French defence. Matt Toomua chipped the remains of the French line, and Ben McCalman beat Brice Dulin to the ball to touch down. Wayne Barnes went upstairs to check if Dulin had been obstructed, the replay showing, depending on your passport, two concurrent slides for the ball or a slide by Toomua into Dulin. To the groans of the Melbourne crowd, the try was disallowed and Toomua penalised.
The denial of the match’s first score exposed a French weakness, their line not nearly as adept when not given the time to reset underneath a high ball. Nick Cummins led the charge with two great runs, and the Australians were rewarded on the half hour with a ruck penalty against the French.
The chance was wasted, the ball sailing into touch in goal to give the French back possession.
Australia were again almost rewarded for their running pressure, when Tevita Kuridrani nearly ran down a French handling error after a scrum, but the line was judged offside and France were given a penalty.
Going for the line, Australia stole the lineout and set about starting another period of kick to kick, each team playing a game of ‘chicken’ with the other’s defence.
France had to forgo another attacking chance on the wing due to a handling error, a knock-on ending the standoff and easing the pressure on the Wallabies. The let-off would be momentary, France awarded a penalty for not releasing at the breakdown, and, with five minutes to go and no score to speak of, sagely opted for the posts.
Morgan Parra was unable to trouble the scorer, the kick missing to the right of the posts. The score was still 0-0 at 35.
In the next play, a Matt Toomua kick was charged down by Dusautoir, but with an open field ahead of him, he couldn’t control the ball, knocking it on and ceding possession. The French captain was clearly distraught at missing a gift-wrapped chance to end the deadlock.
The French would have the final chance to make the Etihad Stadium scoreboard attendant earn their paycheck, McCalman conceding a penalty for not rolling away. They took the line and claimed the lineout, setting up for a drop goal. The Wallabies’ pressure again proved their saviour, the quick release from the breakdown stopping any French option in its tracks, and Michael Hooper eventually trapping Mathieu Bastareaud in a tackle and earning a penalty. Sending the ball out of play, the half ended 0-0, the teams earning a response that can only be described as ‘bemused’.
Australia had the first shot at points in the second half, Nic White opting for the posts when Alexandre Menini was caught offside. In a stadium where – and I hazard to point out the obvious – there is NO WIND, White fell victim to the kicking blues, missing his shot to the right of the posts.
He would have a shot at redemption straight away when Guirado didn’t clear a ruck on the return. White’s shot came off the boot well but dipped, rebounding off the left upright. Australia looked to have regathered through Kuridrani, but he was pinged for not releasing five metres out from the line.
After a brief pause for some handbags and hair-pulling between Nic Cummins and Yoann Huget, France took the ball into Australia’s half. Pushing past Australia’s 10m line, the run only lasted until the 22, when Australia recovered and cleared.
The pressure valve at Etihad Stadium was finally, and thankfully, released in the 53rd minute, when the Wallabies opted to take a penalty awarded inches from the line as a kick at goal. Bernard Foley spared the Melbourne crowd any further grief, slotting the goal and opening the scoring, 3-0.
In the 59th minute, the 27,189 in attendance roared into life, their admirable patience at the hour’s events rewarded by the debut of Luke Jones, the Melbourne Rebel fulfilling Roy & HG’s prophecy by becoming a Wallaby.
Australia were given a chance to double their lead after 64 minutes, when Antoine Burban was caught offside. Nic White made hard work of it, the ball starting right but ending between the posts. With 15 minutes remaining, the Wallabies led 6-0.
The French would end the game with 14 men, Bernard Le Roux given a yellow card after 69 minutes for collapsing the maul. The Wallabies gave the ball to White, but again he couldn’t get the radar in.
The Wallabies finished strong, Israel Folau troubling the French line as the clock wound down. The crowd lifted again when Laurie Weeks made his debut in gold, the popular prop replacing Sekope Kepu with five minutes to go.
France would not go quietly into a series defeat, making two spectacular runs at the death in hope of stealing the win. Handling errors would be their downfall, spilling the ball on the first try, and failing to secure it in the breakdown the second. Australia gleefully kicked the ball out at the resulting penalty to secure the win.
The Game Changer
The hands of the French defined the match. Their pressure and intent at the breakdown should have yielded better results, but any chance they got was halted by sloppy handling.
The G&GR MOTM
James Slipper was fairly judged MOTM at the ground, but tonight I’m going with Nick Cummins. Any time the game looked to be slipping from the Wallabies’ grasp under the high ball, Cummins led runs from the front and reset the Wallabies’ game plan. A crucial part of our attack.
Score & Scorers
Penalties: Foley 1/1, White 1/4
Cards & Citings
Le Roux (France) – Collapsing the Maul 69′
27,189 at Etihad Stadium, Melbourne.
1. J Slipper, 2. T Poloto-Nau, 3. S Kepu, 4. R Simmons, 5. J Horwill, 6. S Fardy, 7. M Hooper [c], 8. B McCalman
9. N White, 10. B Foley, 11. N Cummins, 12. M Toomua, 13. T Kuridrani, 14. A Ashley-Cooper, 15. I Folau
REPLACEMENTS: 16. N Charles, 17. P Cowan, 18. L Weeks, 19. L Jones, 20. S Higginbotham, 21. N Phipps, 22. K Beale, 23. P McCabe
1. A Menini, 2. G Guirado, 3. R Slimani, 4. A Flanquart, 5. Y Maestri, 6. Y Nyanga, 7. T Dusautoir [c], 8. D Chouly
9. M Parra, 10. R Tales, 11. M Medard, 12. W Fofana, 13. M Bastareaud, 14. Y Huget, 15. B Dulin
REPLACEMENTS: 16. B Mach, 17. T Domingo, 18. N Mas, 19. B Le Roux, 20. L Picamoles, 21. A Burban, 22. F Michalak, 23. R Lamerat
Your take on the match: