Australia’s Rugby World Cup is over at the quarter-final stage for just the third time in history after a 40-16 loss to England on Saturday.
Four years ago, it was the Wallabies who dealt the death knell on England in 2015 but this time around, it was England who managed to force their fierce rivals out of the competition.
That result marked the end of an Australian rugby era with Wallabies coach Michael Cheika almost certainly departing the system after this tournament and a host of Australia’s most decorated players bowing out of Test rugby.
Wallabies captain Michael Hooper said pre-game that Australia would back their second-half abilities after a run of poor starts and comebacks this tournament and that’s exactly what they had to try and do in Oita.
Trailing by eight at the break, the Wallabies had the first score after half-time but England snuffed that out immediately with a try, before keeping Australia out on two critical scoring chances and notching 23 unanswered points.
"The better team won. I was supposed to get this done for the people here and for Australians. I'm so disappointed." @wallabies' Michael Cheika reflects on his side's loss tonight #RWC2019 #ENGvAUS #RWCOita pic.twitter.com/f0T2IevFXr— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) October 19, 2019
After looking for bankable points in the first half, Hooper looked to the corner and the scrum in the second and a monstrous England defence kept them off the line and sealed the match with that period.
England captain Owen Farrell added three penalties in the final half an hour to snatch any hope out of the Wallabies’ hands.
Australia’s final 2019 match was a game somewhat symbolic of the Michael Cheika tenure - a commitment to attacking, running rugby that can be both parts exhilarating and frustrating to watch.
This Wallabies team has often felt ever so close to a Eureka performance but not always able to grab onto that elusive near-perfect game and again it proved to be.
Handling errors hurt Australia throughout the game, with the Wallabies conceding 12 turnovers to five.
England’s defence was immense throughout the whole match, racking up close to 100 tackles in the first half and finishing with 159.
The back row battle was as enthralling as expected with Australia’s Michael Hooper and David Pocock hugely influential and Tom Curry and Sam Underhill robbing the Wallabies of opportunities at pivotal times.
Curry was named man of the match and it was he who managed to single-handedly stop Australia as they peppered the England line.
The Wallabies looked to attack hard early and rookie centre Jordan Petaia showed no hesitation trying to break the England line.
In fact, there were no signs of nerves at all from the teenager who was in the thick of the action at 13 early and showed some glimpses of what Australian fans can expect in the next decade.
It was England who got the upperhand of the scrums early and they were happy to keep packing them down as the Wallabies infringed, until on the third they kicked clear, but overall the battle of the packs was fairly even for much of the game.
Kurtley Beale lit up the Oita crowd with a stunning break in the 10th minute just as England looked like they were getting on top and a high tackle gave Christian Lealiifano the chance to notch the first points.
England began to pepper the Australian line after Lealiifano’s score while Australia’s defence initially held strong, winger Jonny May finished off a patient England attacking move.
A quick David Pocock offload missed its intended target and opened the door for May to score his second just three minutes later and stretch the gap to 11 points.
May ran onto a grubber kick and outpaced Wallabies winger Marika Koroibete to nab his double as England began to grow in confidence.
As the turnover rate rocketed up for the Wallabies, England slowly began to take more ascendancy.
The Wallabies committed to their running philosophy, even deep in England’s attacking zone, sometimes robbing themselves of the chance to relieve territory pressure with a clearing kick.
A critical scrum penalty late in the half gave Lealiifano the chance to narrow the half-time margin to eight points.
The Wallabies clearly attempted to address their exit problem at half-time with Beale booting the ball down field at their first chance in the second half.
Where they could count a handful of missed opportunities in the first half, the Wallabies swallowed up their first chance in the second, with a Reece Hodge pass landing in Petaia’s hands, opening up a space for Marika Koroibete to sprint in for the Wallabies’ first try.
England hit back almost immediately through tighthead Kyle Sinckler, collecting a super Farrell pass and running through a gaping hole in Australia’s defence.
An Owen Farrell penalty brought the margin to 11 points, the equal-largest of the match, and that mark triggered a shift in Australia, as desperation to rack up as many points as quickly as possible took over.
"The good news for us is we can still improve"@EnglandRugby coach Eddie Jones thinks his side can still improve after their 40-16 victory over Australia in the #RWC2019 quarter-finals.#ENGvAUS #RWCOita pic.twitter.com/0Lg1sQ7kkS— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) October 19, 2019
Where three points sufficed in the opening half, Hooper instructed Hodge to boot the ball to the corner on this occasion as they looked to whittle the gap down.
The next time, they opted for a five-metre scrum, their intent clear, but the England defence managed what they had all afternoon in holding out Australia and centre Henry Slade was able to kick it clear of trouble.
That Slade kick signalled the end of what was ultimately the match-defining passage of play and the Wallabies had no points to show for it.
Farrell went on to boot three more penalties to keep the scoreboard ticking along and an Anthony Watson try added the final ice for England.
England will face the winner of the New Zealand-Ireland quarter-final to be played in Tokyo at 9:15pm AEDT.
Tries: May 2, Sinckler, Watson
Cons: Farrell 4
Pens: Farrell 4
Tries: Koroibete 2
Pens: Lealiifano 3