The Wallabies’ last-gasp loss at AAMI Park can be effectively summarised by watching the last two Australian attacking phases of the match.
An Isi Naisarani carry did not breach the gain line inside France’s half and cleanouts from Darcy Swain and Matt To’omua were not effective enough to present quick, clean ball for Tate McDermott.
The French defensive line was stable when McDermott passed to Lukhan Salakaia-Loto and another pair of ineffective cleanouts from Angus Bell and Lachlan Lonergan allowed Sekou Macalou to force the match-winning penalty.
Whether referee James Doleman awarded the penalty to the right team is a matter for further debate.
Doleman allowed a free-for-all at the breakdown all night. Macalou appeared to place a hand on the ground and was not supporting his own body weight when he was awarded the penalty.
But the Wallabies allowed Doleman’s poor judgment to play a part through inaccurate work at the breakdown.
“The home side turned the ball over 12 times. France coughed the ball up on just six occasions. They’re the statistics of the night.”
Wallabies coach Dave Rennie, captain Michael Hooper and teammates Marika Koroibete, Brandon Paenga-Amosa, Noah Lolesio and McDermott were all interviewed after match. Losing the battle at the breakdown and subsequently turning the ball over was front of mind for all when asked where the team failed to fire.
The home side turned the ball over 12 times. France coughed the ball up on just six occasions. They’re the statistics of the night.
Rennie often speaks about how important it is for his team to pick themselves up off the turf quicker than their opposition. Winning the race to the breakdown isn’t far behind in his dialogue.
His side failed to deliver on those expectations in Melbourne. When Macalou pounced on Salakaia-Loto, it eventually cost his team a series-clinching win.
Wallabies captain Michael Hooper was under no illusions as to the role the breakdown played in the loss to France.Credit:Getty
As far as where the match was won and lost, the set-piece falling apart at critical moments wasn’t far behind.
Rennie’s reserves were lauded for changing the game in Brisbane last week. The reserve forward pack turned the Wallabies’ scrum into a weapon.
Those same reserves – admittedly without Taniela Tupou after he was elevated to the starting side this week – were outmuscled in the scrum which gifted France the lead with three minutes to play.
Bell’s side of the scrum caved in as the visitors won a penalty against the head and gave Melvyn Jaminet the opportunity to win the match.
Hooper’s side dejected after the last-gasp Test loss in Melbourne.Credit:Getty
There were also three lineouts lost inside France’s half and a botched rolling maul attempt prior to Hooper’s try.
While Lonergan may eventually grow into a player who owns the No. 2 jersey and Feleti Kaitu’u is waiting in the wings to return from injury, Rennie is yet to find the solution at hooker.
Fortunately for ever-optimistic Wallabies fans, the performance wasn’t all bad.
Marika Koroibete played a match like only he can. He was everywhere. The Rebels star finished with 181 run metres from 15 carries, seven defenders beaten, two clean breaks and had two first-half tries disallowed by Doleman and the TMO.
For context, the players with the next most metres gained on either side were Paisami and Tom Banks, who finished with 67 each.
Koroibete will be sorely missed when he departs for a lucrative contract on offer in Japan at the end of this year. Rennie must make the most of the modified Giteau Law and pick the Fijian flyer at the 2023 World Cup.
Hooper was also sensational. France would have run away with the match if he didn’t make a 60-metre run and cover tackle after another Wallabies turnover when the visitors led 22-16 with 21 minutes to play.
Unfair questions about both his captaincy and position in the team have been put to bed in the last six days.
Melvyn Jaminet kicked the winning penalty for France.Credit:Getty
The Jake Gordon, Lolesio and To’omua combination improved but still struggled to create consistent attacking threats. Individually, Lolesio played his best game at Test level.
The attacking shape did improve when McDermott replaced Gordon. The Reds halfback provides more of a running threat, quicker service and rarely opts for the wrong pass when he has forwards hitting the advantage line and providing options.
After a poor performance in Brisbane, Tom Banks also played arguably his best game in the gold jersey.
Tupou converted his impactful play from the bench last week to a very good start, though it did leave the pack lacking firepower at the back end of the match.
The series is now perfectly poised for Saturday’s decider in Brisbane.
Post-match, Rennie suggested he will call upon players outside of the 23 he has stuck with for the first two Tests.
Some of those changes will be enforced due to the four-day turnaround and others due to the Wallabies’ inadequacies in key areas.
Whether Tupou is better utilised off the bench remains a legitimate question. To’omua’s slow start to the Test season could see Paisami and Len Ikitau form a new centre pairing. The pack’s inability to win the breakdown battle may see Swain, Bell or Naisarani earn starts.
But the biggest conundrum will present in the halves.
Rennie must be thinking long and hard about whether McDermott should start ahead of Gordon.
Lolesio has done little wrong in 160 minutes through this series but if McDermott starts, the temptation to reignite his combination with James O’Connor will be strong.
O’Connor has recovered from a groin injury but has not played in a match since late May.
It’s Rennie’s biggest test as Wallabies coach yet. If he makes the right call at the selection table, the Wallabies will win the series and provide a fresh bout of optimism before the Bledisloe Cup campaign begins.
If he doesn’t, his team will face the All Blacks with fresh seeds of doubt firmly front of mind. That’s the last thing any Wallabies team needs.
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