France on Tuesday night dished out multiple Test rugby lessons to a Wallabies team that continues to learn things the hard way, paving the way for a thrilling finale to the series in Brisbane this weekend.
Denied a drought-breaking win on Australian soil last week, the French were thoroughly deserving of their 28-26 win in Melbourne and have given Australia plenty to ponder over the next four days.
That the Wallabies made many of the same errors from last week again at AAMI Park, and that one of the key themes of Super Rugby Trans-Tasman continues to be the Australians’ Achilles heel, are major concerns for Wallabies coach Dave Rennie.
A poor attacking breakdown, which was exploited by each of the New Zealand teams in the Trans-Tasman series, is at the top of that list.
The Wallabies are playing plenty of rugby, no doubt. But their up-tempo, attacking style of game will continue to be easily repelled in the Test arena without major improvements in the tackle area.
Missed clean-outs; players arriving too late in support; and what appears to be an unwavering plan to play “out the back” against a rush French defence all combined to offer up multiple breakdown opportunities the visitors happily exploited. And then fullback Melvyn Jaminet did the rest from the kicking tee.
“Disappointed obviously, we just turned over too much pill at the breakdown; breakdown turnovers, I think there was nine in the game and that hurt us in the end,” Rennie told Stan Sport after the match.
“We probably didn’t quite get the balance right around when to play and when to play a bit of territory.
“We played some good footy in amongst it but we never really got the chance to put the foot on the throat and put them out of the game.”
France deserve plenty of credit for their ability to isolate the Wallabies’ ball-carriers, and then get on the ball at the breakdown, which created the turnover opportunities that frustrated Australia throughout.
The back-row of Ibrahim Diallo, Cameron Woki, Anthony Jelonch were phenomenal, while it was replacement Sekou Macalou who made the decisive turnover that allowed France to shut the game down through to the final siren.
Woki was brilliant in attack, too. Time and time again the young back-rower served as a link-man in what limited attacks the French did make into Wallabies territory. But when the visitors did encroach on the Australian redzone they did so with far greater ease than the Wallabies, particularly through the middle of the paddock.
As it was the Wallabies outscored the French two tries to one, but plenty will again be made of Michael Hooper’s decision to spurn goal-kicking opportunities on a night when Noah Lolesio enjoyed a perfect record from the tee.
Twice the Wallabies kicked into the corner and immediately bottled the lineout, allowing the French to clear their line, while on other occasions the Australian rolling maul was quickly rebuffed and they were forced to move swiftly into pick-and-go mode.
While Hooper has plenty to consider on the captaincy side of things, he remains the Wallabies heartbeat and that certainly showed in the try that momentarily swung the momentum Australia’s way.
In what was their best attacking moment of the match, the classic Brumbies play from Lolesio to Tom Banks back on the inside sent the fullback in behind the French line. Banks then had his basketball-style offload deflected into the path of replacement Andrew Kellaway, who pivoted, and then found the defining pass to a supporting Hooper for a run to the line that brought the healthy AAMI Park crowd to its feet.
The Wallabies then shifted the ball wide from the restart and won a penalty from referee James Doleman that Lolesio duly slotted, and that appeared to have turned the match Australia’s way. But a botched restart of their own and a tremendous shove from the French pack left Doleman little choice but to award the visitors a penalty from the scrum, and Jaminet again did the rest.
Again, Australia dominated possession and territory by a margin of nearly two thirds to one. But they must find some resolution to both their inability to navigate the rush defence and the willingness of other teams to let them play with the ball.
It is a simple way to build a lead against the Australians.
And it is perhaps no clearer than France’s decision to kick exclusively to Marika Koroibete from restarts. While the Wallabies winger was best on ground for the Australians, time after time carting the ball back at the French, the visitors understand exactly that he will do just that and the opportunities at the Australian breakdown will soon follow.
Not once did Koroibete look to offload from the restart or kick for touch himself. Rennie has long made the point about Australia needing to “kick smart”, but there has been little evidence of that so far in this series.
That fact isn’t lost on Rennie.
“I thought we were a lot better in a lot of areas,” Rennie said. “What you know with the French is that they’re gonna go in threes and so you’ve got to be disciplined, and so we made some key errors.
“I thought there was probably only two stats we lost, one was breakdown penalties and the other one was kicking battle. And while we wanted to play and we did some really good stuff from deep, we’ve got to get the balance right of when to kick on the front foot.
“And there’s times when they kick and they’ve got a wall in front of us, we need to kick that back and then have a crack at the next one where we back ourselves to be better conditioned. But we put ourselves under pressure at times and maybe overplayed at our end.”
Solving the Wallabies’ problems before Saturday night, in what is a World Cup-style short turnaround, will be no easy feat. But it is imperative that they at least attempt to navigate the issues, given the importance of the Suncorp Stadium encounter and the number of matches that follow thereafter.
Each of the All Blacks, Springboks and Pumas will have made notes on this French series and will be in little doubt as to exactly where it is this Wallabies team can be easily exposed.
Fabian Galthie’s side have shown them the way, and in doing so head to Brisbane with the chance to win a series in Australia for the first time since 1972.
Having led both matches for all but a couple of minutes, it is nothing short of what France deserve.