The Wallabies’ 2022 season can be summed by the opening three minutes of their 13-10 loss to Ireland in Dublin.
In a year that has been dominated by injuries, the sight of Hunter Paisami being twisted in a tackle and immediately clutching a knee came as no surprise.
And nor did the most Wallabies play possible – having a try overturned on the account of ill-discipline, just moments later.
When Nic White darted out from the ruck, sliding between two Irish defenders to score, Australia looked to have made the perfect start at the Aviva Stadium — Paisami’s departure aside.
But then came the dreaded interjection of the Television Match Official, who had correctly isolated a neck roll from Wallabies hooker Dave Porecki. White’s try was scratched off as a result, Ireland awarded the first of four neck roll penalties for the half, and any early Wallabies momentum was gone.
No, that is not a typo. The Wallabies gave up four neck roll penalties in one half of rugby. Folau Fainga’a’s offence, when the Wallabies were without the ball no less, earning a yellow card just before halftime with referee Ben O’Keeffe having warned both sides about foul play.
In a week where discipline was supposed to have been a focus for Australia, particularly at the breakdown, to give away four penalties for the same piece of foul play in one half, let alone an entire match, is unforgivable.
For their fans back home it will be both bewildering and infuriating, those brave enough to have stuck with them at this late stage of the season anyway.
Fainga’a’s offence was amplified by the fact that, in the second half, the Wallabies had to drop down to 13 players because Porecki had earlier failed an HIA. With no available hooker, and Fainga’a in the bin, uncontested scrums ensued and so Australia had to drop another player.
The Wallabies escaped those two-and-a-half minutes by the barest of margins, with Ireland winger Mack Hansen just grazing the touchline before he hurled a ball back inside for Jamison Gibson-Park who looked to have scored.
The game eventually finished 13-10 to Ireland, the hosts adding another victory to their imposing record at the Aviva Stadium as the Wallabies slumped to a ninth defeat for 2022.
Pressure will likely increase on Wallabies coach Dave Rennie even further as a result, but he cannot be held responsible for the multiple incidents of foul play inside the first 40 minutes.
“It was gutsy, we hung in the fight, a fair bit of adversity tonight. We lost Hunter after two minutes, obviously Dave Porecki and later Kels [Andrew Kellaway], Nela [Taniela Tupou] and Bobby Valetini, all with injuries who’ll be unlikely for next week.
“We obviously ended up having to play with 13 at one stage, but there was a huge amount of character; but as you say, frustration, because we had our opportunities. You’ve got to give credit to the Irish defence, so yeah, gutted for the boys, because it was very winnable.’
There were just six points scored in the first 65 minutes of what was largely a forgettable Test, one that was hit pre-match by the withdrawal of Ireland captain Jonathan Sexton.
Having dominated both possession and territory in the first half, Australia were unable to break down the green wall opposite them, the hosts’ defence and selective breakdown showing few signs of giving. The Wallabies could manage just one clean break despite a 61 and 67% share of territory and possession.
Bundee Aki’s 66th minute try broke the tryless stalemate, Ireland’s field position coming from yet another needless Wallabies penalty as Jake Gordon, playing out of position on the wing, made the slightest of touches on Gary Ringrose while the Irish centre was catching a kick in the air.
The contact was minimal, but given the Wallabies had been awarded a similar penalty in the first half they could have few complaints.
To their credit, Australia rallied thereafter and at last found some second-half momentum through replacement Will Skelton and winger Mark Nawaqanitawase, who for the second straight week showed he may well be the bolter for next year’s World Cup.
Dominant in the air, strong through contact and with a dangerous offload up his sleeve, Nawaqanitawase was one of the few Australians to worry the Irish defence and it was his pass that put Jordan Petaia on a run to the line inside the final 10 minutes.
Former Wallabies skipper Michael Hooper, too, enjoyed his best game over the ball at the breakdown in some time, the veteran No. 7 winning several key turnovers.
When Bernard Foley converted Petaia’s five-pointer the Test was locked up once more at 10 apiece, though given the script of the past three weeks – and Australia’s entire 2022 season for that matter — you knew there was more drama to come.
That came through a scrum penalty for the hosts and a superb strike from Ross Byrne, which took Ireland out to a 13-10 lead with four minutes to play.
Australia had one final chance to win it when they worked their way downfield, earned a penalty and kicked to the corner. But again they were let down by their execution, although Jake Gordon’s maul infringement was a hugely technical call and, unlike the four neck rolls conceded in the first half, forgivable given he was already playing out of position before joining the drive.
“Yeah, it’s very technical,” Rennie said of the decision to ping Gordon after he joined the maul in front of the ball. “Normally it wouldn’t be picked up, but there was a fair bit of technical stuff picked up tonight.”
As well as Tupou and Paisami, the Wallabies have further injury concerns in the shape of Kellaway, Porecki and Valetini, leaving them thin on the ground as they limp into Cardiff next week.
They will also be without Foley and Skelton, who are due to return to their Japanese and French clubs respectively.
The only good news is that Australia will be playing the other top-10 team who are struggling more than the Wallabies themselves, after Wales were beaten 13-12 at home by the 14th-ranked Georgia.
But even the floundering Welsh will be bullish about taking down a Wallabies side that has been even further ravaged by injury and, for only reasons they can answer, continues to give away idiotic penalties.
That was clear after just three minutes in Dublin, you just had to sit through another 77 to suffer the final torture.