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Wallabies open new era under Schmidt with sweet triumph against Wales
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Wallabies open new era under Schmidt with sweet triumph against Wales

Australian rugby has rediscovered its heartbeat, vanquishing some of the demons from last year’s World Cup debacle with a thrilling 25-16 victory over Wales that gets the era under new coach Joe Schmidt off to a flying start.

After a winless home season in 2023 before capitulating on rugby’s biggest stage under axed coach Eddie Jones, the Wallabies are finally on the up, defying slippery conditions to put the Red Dragons to the sword in front of 35,945 at Allianz Stadium.

Wales opened the scoring in the third minute, referee Pierre Brousset finding an infringement no one else saw, which allowed Ben Thomas to slot a penalty. Noah Lolesio made it 3-3 in the seventh minute, allowing the crowd to rise and salute their own No 7, home town hero and newly retired 125-Test tyro Michael Hooper.

Michael Hooper takes to the field with the match ball as he was honoured in SydneyView image in fullscreen

Pundits had predicted a dour match strategy by the straight-shooting Schmidt. Instead the Wallabies attacked from the get-go. It was as much aerial warfare as a land battle. Flicks and feints, chip kicks, grubbers, worm burners and skyscrapers. Cross-field bombs for wingers on the fly. Defensive box kicks, attacking torpedoes.

Australia blooded seven debutants in their matchday 23 – the most in 44 years – and a rookie captain in first-time starter Liam Wright, the most inexperienced skipper since debutant Ken Catchpole led the Wallabies 63 winters ago. It was high-risk but the combinations were carefully chosen by Schmidt and most of them clicked tonight.

In the halves, NSW Waratahs halfback Jake Gordon’s flat bullet passes got Australia on the front foot at speed and the Brumbies fly-half Lolesio mostly mixed up his magic tricks smartly. But for all the flair, Wales’ rush defence was forcing errors. Fullback Tom Wright was struggling under the high ball and winger Andrew Kellaway couldn’t find space.

But with 64 carries to 22 in the first half, Australia’s composure under pressure paid off. Having stretched Wales on the flanks, their forwards charged through the middle. Taniela Tupou then Rob Valetini, each inched closer. Finally Tupou came again and wasn’t to be denied. Lolesio added the extras to make it 13-3 after 21 minutes.

Taniela Tupou is congratulated after scoringView image in fullscreen

For all their flair, Australia balanced it with farce. Kellaway and Wright fumbled an in-goal clean up. Jeremy Williams took a pass walking the wrong way. Fraser McReight copped a yellow. Warren Gatland’s squad was a husk of the one who had walloped the Wallabies 40-6 in September but a rolling maul in the 25th made it 13-10 at half-time.

Australia had won 100% of their scrums and lineouts yet were only three points up. And they started the second half as they finished last season, ill-disciplined butchering multiple-phases of play. But in a winless season, Wales were running on old legs and in the 52nd minute a wraparound play sent Filipo Daugunu skidding over for 18-10.

Lolesio missed conversion almost proved costly when Wales scored five minutes later. A Gordon ankle tap on Aaron Wainwright had saved a score in the preceding play but Wales’ rolling maul score appeared to make it 18-18 until Brousset found an obstruction.

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On the hour mark, Australia’s own maul almost produced a clincher. Instead they went wide with an overlap and Lolesio kicked for Kellaway, a punt that failed to pay off. It signalled the end for Gordon-Lolesio with Queensland’s halves Tate McDermott and another debutant, 20-year-old Tom Lynagh, brought on to slay the Dragon.

Instead, Wales kicked a penalty to make it 18-16 with under 15 minutes to play. This was an undercard bout – ninth plays 10th in the IRB rankings – but both nations badly needed victory. In the 70th minute, Wales blinked first. Lynagh fielded a long kick and, instead of reefing it back, passed long. Wright cut through and raced away.

Tom Wright opens up to go clear and score.View image in fullscreen

Even at 25-16, Australia weren’t safe. Last year they had blown it at the death against both Argentina and the All Blacks to set off the doom spiral that finished them in France. Like fire ants the brave Welsh swarmed into Australia’s half and stayed there. But Valetini stood tall, launching a series of rattling tackles. Somehow the gold wall held.

It was far from perfect by Australia but after the hell of the past 12 months, it was a victory sweeter than most. Given the brief preparation, new blood on show and the courageous decision to omit players defecting to NRL or playing overseas, Schmidt will be happy and so will his team. Better yet, so will longsuffering Wallabies fans.

Source: theguardian.com