The Junior Wallabies’ World Rugby U20s semi-finals hopes are hanging in the balance, after a 26-21 loss to Wales.
With only the top team in each pool guaranteed a semi-final spot and a match against defending champions New Zealand yet to come, Australia’s first-up loss, and their first defeat to Wales at U20s level, could be a crucial one.
The Aussies fought their way back from a 12-point deficit to trail by a sole try in the final three minutes, but errors ultimately proved the difference.
Their forwards were abrasive and a dominant scrum performance gave them some joy, but they were left to rue opportunities gone begging.
The Junior Wallabies had a huge confidence boost early, earning a penalty in the first scrum of the match, giving captain Ryan Lonergan a chance to score in the fifth minute.
Australia showed some flashes of backs brilliance but it was their forwards that made the early statement, Josh Kemeny forcing a turnover in the ruck.
Cai Evans had a reply for Wales, as the game turned into somewhat of an arm wrestle in the opening stanza.
Aussie winger Matt McTaggart made some promising breaks, but couldn’t turn them into tries, kicking the ball straight into an opponent, but there was little space for them to take advantage of.
Penalties gave Wales the change to edge their way in front, with Evans slotting a 50-metre penalty in the 20th minute.
It might have taken them 25 minutes to score their first, but Australia did it in a spectacular way, with a Bayley Kuenzle cross-field kick going James Ramm’s way, and the winger tapping it inside to Mack Hansen to keep the ball in play and put his fullback over the line.
Wales had their own try for the highlights reel, with inside centre Ioan Nicholas getting the pill down just centimetres shy of the dead ball line, off a soccer from a teammate.
They had another just before half-time, putting Australia in a precarious position at the break, as errors crept into the Junior Wallabies’ game.
Penalties continued to be an issue for the Junior Wallabies, giving away another chance at points to Wales just after half-time, leaving them with a 12-point deficit to chase.
Australia used the scrum to try and exert some dominance, but were undone at times by handling errors and penalties in phase play.
Lonergan reaped some reward for that scrum advantage, narrowing the gap to nine points, but that was a rare bright spot in a frustrating second half.
Basic errors proved their killer, with easy penalties given away and passes put to ground, snuffing out their attacking opportunities, while Evans punished them in front of the sticks.
Almost any time Australia neared the line, they were left to rue a dropped pass or knock on, but they finally nabbed one back, with a sneaky Hansen offload putting replacement scrumhalf Tate McDermott over to give the Aussies a sniff, but the clock snuffed out their chance to clinch a win.
Australia takes on Japan in the second pool round on Sunday.
Junior Wallabies 21
Tries: Hansen, McDermott
Pens: Lonergan 3
Tries: Nicholas, Goodchild
Cons: Evans 2
Pens: Evans 4