It ended in glorious failure, but the Wallabies’ ill-fated tour of Britain may yet serve them well – if they are prepared to learn from mistakes.
Having already lost to Scotland 15-13 and England 32-15, Sunday morning’s soul-destroying 29-28 defeat to Wales confirmed Australia’s first winless European tour since 1976.
It is difficult to recall a braver performance from the Wallabies, who played with 14 men for most of the match, and even 13 for a period, only to have victory snatched away in the 82nd minute. They improved markedly in their attack from the previous two Tests, only for ill-discipline to let them down – a recurring problem which must be addressed.
If discipline matched courage, Dave Rennie’s side would be one of the best in the world. And yet the Wallabies conceded 13 penalties to Wales’ nine, with Scottish referee Mike Adamson making some highly contentious calls. They sparked a diatribe from Rennie, who described the officiating as “horrendous”.
But it begs the question: why do Australia always seem to be on the wrong side of the officiating?
The Wallabies began the game brightly with winger Andrew Kellaway scoring in the second minute after chasing a grubber kick by inside-centre Hunter Paisami into the in-goal. But the red-carding of Rob Valetini in the 15th minute, for a high tackle on Welsh second-rower Adam Beard, changed the course of the game.
It looked a tough decision because there was an accidental head clash but, in the context of World Rugby’s concerns over player welfare, it was the correct call.
Adamson explained to Wallabies captain James Slipper that Valetini had been upright in the tackle, coming at Beard from distance and at speed. The No 8 had clearly attempted to prevent Beard from off-loading the ball. But if a player takes that risk in defence he cannot complain about the consequences of any contact with the head, which is now a no-go zone of the body.
The sin-binning of full-back Kurtley Beale in the 22nd minute for a deliberate knock-down was also the result of a change to the interpretation of the rule. In the past, that offence was only a penalty; now it’s a yellow card.
What really upset the Wallabies was the 47th-minute try to Welsh outside-centre Nick Tompkins after he seemingly committed the same offence as Beale. When Tompkins knocked down a Wallabies pass almost every player on the field stopped, waiting for the penalty, but Adamson ruled the ball bounced backwards, not forwards, and allowed play to continue.
After initially hesitating, Tompkins raced away to score a decisive try. There will not be any apology because the call was correct. One of the first things you learn as a child is play to the whistle.
Instead of getting angry about the refereeing, Australia must learn to adapt or continue to lose.
Compared to the previous Tests, the Wallabies were far more inventive in attack and their ball-handling much better, out-scoring Wales three tries to two, which was three times as many tries as they scored against the Scots and English combined.
Winger Filipo Daugunu’s try in the 70th minute followed a great midfield break by Paisami. Then replacement flanker Lachie Swinton, No 6 Rob Leota and winger Tom Wright transferred the ball from right to left to Daugunu with simple catch-and-pass skills.
When Beale landed a long-distance penalty goal in the 77th minute to put the Wallabies in front 28-26, it looked as though a famous, against-the-odds victory was on the cards.
But from the re-start Beale was ankle-tapped while attempting to kick the ball downfield and it squirted off the side of his boot, giving Wales one last attacking opportunity. Replacement five-eighth Rhys Priestland duly obliged, kicking a penalty goal to give the Welsh their third straight win against the Wallabies.
It is always the little things that matter in the end.
In an up-and-down year, the Wallabies produced a 7-7 win-loss record, including two wins against the world-champion Springboks and three losses to the All Blacks.
Where they go from here will depend largely on who is deemed eligible to represent their country after Rugby Australia determines the future selection policy of overseas-based Australian players.
Rennie was criticised in some quarters for making so many exemptions to the so-called Giteau Law, which saw Japan-based Quade Cooper, Samu Kerevi and Sean McMahon play in the Rugby Championship, and France-based Rory Arnold, Will Skelton, Tolu Latu and Beale participate in the British tour.
He did, however, need to assess those offshore players to work out whether they were required for the 2023 World Cup in France.
Significantly, we are yet to see the best Wallabies team play together in a Test. It would be counter-productive for RA, under pressure from Super Rugby franchises, to exclude potentially required players by tightening the eligibility rules again.
In the gloom of the British autumn lies a glimmer of hope. If the Wallabies select their best players, maintain their discipline and look after the ball, they are capable of producing winning rugby – but hard lessons must be heeded first.