Courage, character, craziness. Dave Rennie’s Wallabies pulled off one of the great back-to-the-wall victories on Saturday, defeating England with 14 men and snapping Eddie Jones’s eight-game winning streak against his homeland with a brave, barnstorming victory in the first Test of the Ella-Mobbs Trophy three-match series.
Already missing their first-pick playmaker injured in the warm-up, the men in gold then lost their full-back to a season-ending injury, lost the foundation of their scrum to a head-injury assessment and lost their lineout caller to a red card – all within the first 35 minutes. The most desperate of hours loomed.
Rarely has a bench been busier. Young Noah Lolesio took the conductor’s baton and kicking boots from Quade Cooper at fly-half, the apprentice replacing the sorcerer. Jordan Petaia stepped in for Tom Banks at No 15 after the latter’s arm snapped coming down from a leap.
In the forwards veteran James Slipper came on for Allan Alaatoa who had been cruelly penalised for not rolling away while concussed. No one could replace the dismissed Darcy Swain so the Wallabies double-timed, wingers stepping in for flankers at the set-piece and backs joining mauls.
For a time Australia simply held on, leaning into the ropes and taking punches, throwing a few on the rare occasion they got the ball. With so much blood in the water, England’s big men went berserk. Dave Rennie’s men were losing the middle, bending at the edges, giving away more penalties at the maul.
Yet each time the white chargers came, the gold wall held. With limited combinations bedded down by the second-stringers in the lead-up, Australia stepped up individually with conspicuous acts of bravery. Targeted under the bomb, Lolesio passed each test, then countered with jagging runs or pop passes.
With no Cooper or Banks to kick clear, Samu Kerevi put aside his appetite for destruction and started reefing the ball upfield for territory. With no Swain to go high at the restarts, Marika Koroibete began climbing into the English leapers, plucking the pigskin on high like an Australian rules forward. Not content to rest on his wing, Andrew Kellaway went looking for it and began threatening with speed and grubber kicks.
For much of the first half nerves and adrenaline got the better of both sides. Lineouts were lost, penalties were given, opportunities were squandered. But for Australia to stagger to half-time level on the scoreboard and with their bench players settled into the first XV was a victory in itself.
England started the better after the interval. Australia tackled bravely, small men on big. The captain, Michael Hooper, forced a turnover on the tryline, but the Wallabies were pinned and when Ellis Genge crossed at the second attempt, England were in front and the locals looked doomed to bleed out.
England’s ascendancy was immediate. Weight of bodies, weight of possession, weight of pressure. Australia kept coming but now even their heaviest hitters were being driven back. With rain lashing the east coast and floodgates threatening to open in the west, a kid named Noah turned the tide.
Still only 22, with just eight caps to his name and the cherubic face of a boy-band smooth crooner, Lolesio was overlooked by Rennie for the magic hands of the maverick Cooper. Now, on the back of a surge, the rookie ran into the teeth of the enemy and squeaked a pass inside. It gave Australia width at last. Kellaway briskly flipped it on and Petaia clambered over three to cross.
It was Hooper’s 66th Test as captain but the pint-size warrior had never led a victory over England. Sensing the sap leaving his depleted side he embarked on a kamikaze run at Billy Vunipola, who caught him high. A yellow card made it 14 on 14. England were behind on the board and starting to panic.
The last great cavalry charge was late in the day at Beersheba in 1917 and Australian forces led it. Now, as the final 10 minutes loomed, Lolesio kicked for the corner and Petaia took out Freddie Steward in a mighty collision. From the scrum, Australia wheeled then surged. Kerevi and Petaia left the backline and joined the push so Folau Fainga’a, another fill-in on the frontline, could peel off and plant it down.
At 23-14, Australia were ahead but cooked. They summoned a final effort, Hooper and the replacement flanker Pete Samu diving over to win a maul penalty. The Wallaby scrum buckled at first. But it was a trap. The second setting brought an almighty gold rush and Samu scored off the back of it. 30-14.
Dead on their feet, game won, Australia’s huddle could raise a smile even if they couldn’t raise a spit. England strolled over for two late tries to even up the scoreboard but the real battle had been lost. A tenacious Australia had overcome countless wounds to find their steel and put England to the sword.