That was the win the Wallabies had to have. It was not convincing in terms of the margin, but Saturday night’s series-deciding 33-30 result against France was full of character. It was what the French would call “courage sous le feu”, or courage under fire.
More than 34,000 fans walked away from Suncorp Stadium proud of their national team. Sure, Australia played a second-string French side, but that does not mean Les Bleus were not good. To prevail with only 14 men for 75 and a half minutes was a monumental achievement. In fact, the red-carding of Wallabies winger Marika Koroibete for a dangerous tackle on French captain and No 8 Anthony Jelonch seemed to be galvanising factor.
The Wallabies showed plenty of resilience over the course of three Tests condensed into an 11-day period because of restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic. They came back from slow starts to win the first Test in Brisbane 23-21 then lose the second 28-26 in Melbourne. In the third, when the French flew out to a 10-0 lead after only seven minutes it looked as if the same pattern might follow, but it did not.
In the first Test, the Wallabies did not take the lead for the first time until the 83rd minute. In the second, they did not hit the front until the 75th minute. But on Saturday, undermanned, they gained the upper hand in the 20th.
The reasons for that were two-fold. Firstly, coach Dave Rennie made eight changes to the team which lost last out and finally got the selections right. In the forwards, second-rower Darcy Swain, blindside flanker Lachie Swinton and No 8 Isi Naisarani gave the Wallabies a greater physical presence. Swain was a hero after shutting down a French maul in the 80th minute to secure the win.
There was debate about whether powerful tight-head prop Taniela Tupou should start or come off the bench. Tupou had come off the bench in the first Test and started in the second. Tupou was among the reserves for the third Test, but the compromise solution seemed to be to inject him into the game as soon as possible in the second half. He came onto the field in the 46th minute and made a big impact.
Halfback Tate McDermott provided the Wallabies with speed and energy. He formed a wonderful combination with captain and openside flanker Michael Hooper, which led to him scoring the try that got the Wallabies back into the game in the 10th minute. Len Ikitau was solid at outside-centre, allowing Hunter Paisami to shift from No 13 to inside-centre where he is probably better suited. Significantly, Matt Toomua, who started at No 12 in the first two Tests, did not replace Paisami until the 77th minute.
The second reason is down to a change of strategy. In the first two Tests the Australians attempted to shift the ball wide, but their complicated attacking movements came unstuck because of handling errors. Conversely, in the third Test, the Wallabies simplified their game plan, playing more direct, kicking for field position and dominating the set-pieces. It certainly was not champagne rugby, but it worked by reducing costly turnovers, though it must be said that playing with only 14 men almost dictated they play that way.
The fact the French did not send their best team to Australia, coupled with the distorting effect of the red card, means the series was inconclusive in many ways, but the Wallabies will gain much confidence from lifting the Trophee des Bicentenaires. Since winning the Rugby Championship in 2015 and reaching the final of the World Cup that same year, winning has not been something the Wallabies have often managed. In the past five years, Australia had not beaten a major European power on home soil, losing to England, Scotland and Ireland. Now they know what it feels like to hold a big trophy again.
Former Wallabies legend David Campese stated that winning had to become part of their DNA. The only way that can happen is to keep winning, which will not be easy. The Wallabies’ next Test is against the All Blacks at Eden Park in Auckland on 7 August, a fixture Australia has not won since 1986.
Even given their reduced error rate against France, they still made the kind of basic mistakes on which the All Blacks would feast. For all the changes Rennie made for the third French Test, there still appears to be a few Wallabies who are not quite up to Test standard.
Does Rennie remain faithful to the players who won the deciding Test against France or continue to search for the Wallabies’ best combination? A little bit of tinkering, maybe? Whether the Wallabies are good enough to upset the All Blacks remains to be seen. But one thing is now certain: they will not lack heart.