A day full of rugby came to an end with Australia continued their Autumn Nations Series campaign with a trip to France. The Wallabies could consider themselves lucky to have won last weekend against Scotland, but were fully deserving of their early lead after Taniela Tupou won a penalty at the scrum, which Bernard Foley kicked. However, the hosts were soon level after the Wallabies failed to release Antoine Dupont in the tackle, allowing Thomas Ramos an early kick from distance, while a Grégory Alldritt jackal allowed Ramos to kick them into the lead from halfway just minutes later. Foley soon levelled the scores offt he tee after Uini Atonio tackled Michael Hooper off the ball, while the fly hal successfully covered a Ramos kick to the corner moments later at the expense of a 5m lineout. And though the French pack were unable to maul it over, the team went through the phases before Charles Ollivon forced his way over on 15 minutes, only for it to be judged a double movement. Foley’s clearing penalty failed to find touch and the French were back on the attack, but when the bounce of Dupont’s chip just evaded the chasing Ramos, Australia recovered it and countered down their left wing for Len Lalakai Foketi to score. As the visitors began to take control, Foley missed a penalty, while Foketi was forced to leave the field with an injury, Hunter Paisami taking his place. As Les Bleus grew back into the game, Ramos added another 6 points off the tee, and they took the lead on the stroke of half time. The ball went to ground as Australia tried playing it though their backs, and when Fickou kicked the ball on, Andrew Kellaway managed to cover it, only for Dupont to drive him back to his own try line in the tackle, before the next men in cleared over him to turn the ball over, allowing Julien Marchand to cross from close range, with Ramos’ conversion giving them a 19-13 lead at the break.
Foley was able to quickly cut the deficit to 3 after the break as the French defence advanced too soon at a lineout, but an error off the restart gifted Les Bleus possession on the edge of their 22, and as the front row’s carries began to make ground, Rob Valentini’s high tackle allowed Ramos to kick 3 points of his own, though his next kick from halfway drifted wide. As the substitutes began to make an entrance, a wide move directly following a driving maul saw Jock Campbell go over for his first Test try just before the hour, with Foley’s conversion giving his side a 1-point lead. A penalty for Dany Priso going off his feet allowed Foley to stretch the lead to 4. However the French were straight back on the attack and when Jonathan Danty was taken out off the ball, the hosts chose to go to the corner, but as Alldritt tried to offload close to the line, the ball went loose and the visitors earned a penalty to clear their lines with 10 minutes left. Ramos soon cut the lead back to 1 with a penalty, while Australia replaced Bernard Foley with the big boot of Reece Hodge, and one of his first actions was to kick the lead back out to 4 points with 5 minutes remaining. France were straight back on the attack, and after making a break down the left, replacement fly half Matthieu Jalibert floated a wide pass to Damian Penaud just phases later, and the French wing somehow manager to beat Tow Wright to go over in the corner and give Les Bleus the narrowest of leads as Ramos’ conversion drifted wide. With just seconds left, Australia turned the ball over just inside their own half, but the French defence held firm and a jackal from Danty earned the hosts a penalty, securing a 30-29 victory, a record 11ᵗʰ in a row for them.
How often do we see it in rugby: a team scores and then immediately maks some error either securing the restart or with their exit play, often resulting in them quickly conceding themselves.
Well for the French, the restarts will likely be a huge focus during the week as they repeatedly struggled to secure the ball, continually putting themselves under pressure. It doesn’t matter how good your defence is, if you are continually gifting the opposition possession in and around your 22, then you’re putting yourself under pressure and will likely concede points.
This is a fairly settled team, with just a few changes to the usual starting XV, so it is a little shocking to see them struggling so much. But with someone as meticulous and disciplined as Shaun Edwards, you can guarantee that they will be looking to sort this out ahead of next weekend. Because you can guarantee that next weekend’s opponents South Africa will have picked up on this and will likely be putting extra pressure on at the restarts to try and win them back.
Whether intended or not, Australia’s back 3 selection for this game may have helped them nullify the French kicking game for the most part. With usual starter Marika Koroibete unavailable for this series, the Australian coaches chose to go for a back 3 of Tom Wright and Andrew Kellaway on the wings, with impressive youngster Jock Campbell at 15. Notably, this means that all 3 of them had experience playing at fullback.
Now while France may be better known for their exciting rugby, that is usually reserved these days for possession inside the final third of the pitch. The rest of the time, they will usually go through a couple of phases to create a platform, before kicking downfield, allowing their now-reliable defence to put the opposition under pressure. All well and good, until they find themselves playing against a back 3 who are all comfortable cover the kicks for territory and then replying with a territorial kick of their own.
Suddenly, that territory advantage is disappearing and, if anything, with Foley and White also there to control the territory game, the Wallabies are doing this better than the hosts. Suddenly without that control of territory, France were having to play from deeper with ball in hand, and though they still had some success with this, it was also playing at much greater risk.