Wallabies are still alive (just) at the World Cup — but they do not deserve to be

SAINT-ETIENNE, France — All Australia can do now is wait and hope.

Wait and hope that Portugal can pull off a miracle Rugby World Cup upset over Fiji next week in Toulouse and in doing so deny them a losing bonus point. After the Pacific islanders struggled to get past Georgia on Saturday afternoon, such an eventuality does not look quite the same long shot it did at the start of the week.

But if that result goes as expected, then the Wallabies will wait on Eddie Jones and Rugby Australia, as decisions are made in the wash-up of a record-low World Cup campaign, amid the ongoing reports that the coach is preparing an exit stage left to Japan.

And the hard truth is that this Wallabies team does not deserve to still have a pulse, as it was put by one Wallabies player earlier this week, in France. While their 34-14 victory over Portugal on Sunday evening looks comfortable on paper, there was enough inexplicable play and just downright dumb rugby that those Australian fans in the stands at Saint-Etienne’s Stade Geoffrey-Guichard will have been shifting nervously in their seats.

“We only had one objective this week and that was to be alive and we are still alive,” Jones said post match. “I am not interested in conjecture about Portugal and Fiji next week. I am pleased for the players. They’ve worked really hard, as they have all tournament, and they deserve some accolades for this performance today.”

Whether it was replacement Samu Kerevi’s raised forearm — yes it happened again — more bottled lineouts, loose placement of the ball on the attacking breakdown, or Matt Faessler’s own yellow card for a cynical maul infringement, the Wallabies produced some ordinary rugby and then spent virtually the last half hour of the match under the pump.

Australia were down to 13 men for eight minutes of the second half, after the temporary dismissals of Faessler and Kerevi, and while they managed to give away only seven points during that period, Portugal were riding an incredible wave of momentum and the fervent support of a crowd bathed in red.

At that point the margin was still 15 points and safely in the Wallabies’ grasp, but such has been the past week in Australian rugby that it somehow felt closer. And the 41,342 fans who it felt were all cheering for Portugal will have only added to that Australian anxiety.

But a Marika Koroibete try after a surging run from Kerevi through the heart of the Portugal defence put paid to any momentary thought there would a miracle comeback — and what would have been even further embarrassment for Australian rugby.

Earlier, had it not been for the first-half sin-binning of Portugal centre Pedro Bettencourt, the second-half tension could have hit astronomical levels for the Wallabies. Having scored the game’s first try, and whipped the pro-Portugal crowd into a frenzy in the process, Bettencourt clattered into Izaia Perese’s head with his shoulder and earned a 10-minute breather for his trouble.

The Wallabies scored two converted tries during Bettencourt’s time in the bin, and another soon after his return, to take charge of the game and be on the cusp of the bonus-point — which they also needed to keep alive their campaign for another week — at halftime.

That was taken care of seven minutes after the resumption and from there Australia looked set for a largely comfortable closing half hour, only for the momentum to shift completely in Os Lobos’ favour. The Portuguese would have gone into halftime closer to Australia, too, had it not been for a desperate try-saving tackle from Andrew Kellaway in the left-hand corner.

The Wallabies built their first-half breathing space on the back of the power carrying of Angus Bell, who was monstrous for Australia alongside No. 8 and man-of-the-match Rob Valetini. When the dust settles on these disastrous few months under Jones — or if the coach vanishes amid a cloud of smoke himself — the Wallabies rebuild can be based around the forward duo.

Bell had a hand in Australia’s first try, laying the platform for big carries from Valetini, who then popped for Richie Arnold to score next to the sticks; before the Wallabies No. 1 did it all himself from close rang for Australia’s third. Bell also added a breakdown turnover for good measure, before going 76 minutes in a tireless performance that underlined his class.

Australia’s second five-pointer was scored by skipper Dave Porecki via their first genuinely dominant driving maul of the trip, while Fraser McReight crossed for the bonus-point try after halftime.

Bell and Valetini were ably supported by Tom Hooper in defence and Perese in attack. Marika Koroibete was guilty of a horror defensive read which allowed Portugal to score the game’s first try, but the winger redeemed himself to a point with a series of crunching tackles on a number of Portuguese players. The pro-Portugal crowd did not like one of those early in the second half, but there was enough of an arm wrap for Koroibete to be cleared by the TMO.

That wasn’t the case with Kerevi however, who in a flashback to the heated clash with Wales in Tokyo, again led with his forearm and paid the price. While there was some conjecture around that carry into Rhys Patchell four years ago, Kerevi could have few complaints about his sanction this time around. After previously saying he had not addressed his running style, on the evidence of Sunday afternoon’s incident that sentiment might need a rethink.

In the end, Portugal finished with 98 more run metres than Australia, five extra clean breaks and 11 more beaten defenders; they had run the Wallabies ragged, but had lacked the finishing polish, and a touch of patience, to really make things interesting.

“Today I am pleased for the players,” Jones added. “They played with a lot of toughness, a lot of character. At times we were clinical and at times we weren’t, which is where we need to improve. But I am really pleased for the players. That sums up my mood.”

It’s true Australia deserve praise for some gritty defensive work when they were down to 13 men, with several key tackles, and a handful of absolutely thunderous hits, helping limit Portugal to just the one try while Faessler and Kerevi were off. But the fact that they put themselves in that position to start with — and finished on the end of an 11-7 penalty count — shows discipline remains a huge issue.

Gathered on halfway a few minutes after the final whistle, the Wallabies cut an exhausted and dejected collective figure as they hugged each other and shared what was no doubt a few mild words of consolation.

But they then followed their opponents on a lap around the Stade Geoffrey-Guichard, thanking those Wallabies fans who had made the trip to the other side of the world to cheer them on, and who will be just as disappointed as the team are with the results of the past few weeks themselves.

Australia’s campaign is not dead yet, and they will now have a few days off to regroup before they return to training and hope to high heaven that the team that battled back so gamely on Sunday afternoon — and caused them plenty of issues in defence throughout — cannot only spring one of the alltime upsets over Fiji next weekend, but also deny Simon Raiwalui’s side the bonus point in the process.

Despite the endeavour and commitment Portugal showed on Sunday, the chance that those twin requirements unfold simultaneously next week remains unlikely.

And such a result would only mask a campaign that has lumped from one disaster to the next — and for a few fleeting moments on Sunday evening in Saint-Etienne looked like it could do again.

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