'Let the country down': Hodge heartbreak as playmaker misses late chance as Wallabies draw in Newcastle

Tri Nations
by Christy Doran

Eight years after losing to Scotland on a wet and miserable night in the Hunter, the Newcastle curse continues after the Wallabies were held to a frustrating, tryless 15-15 draw on a nervy Saturday night at McDonald Jones Stadium.

Wallabies playmaker Reece Hodge had the chance to win the match with a late penalty, but after slotting five straight goals from the tee he pushed his sixth effort across the face of goals in the 79th minute.

The Wallabies had one late chance to win the game in front of 11749 fans, but midfielder Jordan Petaia kicked the ball away with seconds to go.

"I feel like I've let the country down," Hodge, who also missed a long-range penalty in the 83rd minute against the All Blacks last month that would have seen them claim Bledisloe I and their first win in New Zealand since 2001, told Fox Sports.

"It's a pretty tough one to take at the moment. We were up 15-6 and had our chances to seal that game."

It was the Wallabies' first tryless Test since their heartbreaking 9-6 loss to Wales in Cardiff in 2018.

The match evoked memories of the ugly night in 2012 at the same venue, when Robbie Deans' side fell to Scotland 9-6 in another tryless Test.

Wallabies coach Dave Rennie lamented his side's inability to close out the result, where he said the Pumas "never looked like scoring a try".

“I’m really frustrated, really disappointed,” Rennie told reporters following the draw.

“At 15-6 we had control of the game, we had chances to pin them in the corners. We had a fair bit of success from kicking; looks like we got bored of it. Played and overplayed and turned the ball over and brought them back into the game.

“Disappointing, we should have closed that out. We’ve really got ourselves to blame.”

The draw saw both nations collect two points, which sees the Wallabies and Pumas join the All Blacks on six points, who lead on points differential.

But the Pumas - with former Wallabies coach Michael Cheika sitting in the Argentinian coaching box alongside head coach Mario Ledesma - will be the happier of the two camps given they have another game in-hand.

Judging on the dancing and singing in the stands from the South Americans following the game you could have been mistaken that the Pumas won. They did, after all, claw their way back in the final quarter of the match to take something away from the Test.

For the second straight week Pumas playmaker Nicolas Sanchez scored all of his sides points, as he slotted five penalties from the kicking tee. 

"Nico Sanchez is walking on water," Ledesma said of his experienced No.10.

But where the Pumas attacked with preciseness last week against the All Blacks, they feasted on the Wallabies' mistakes in Newcastle.

The Wallabies had most of the running in the match and had two tries disallowed in the first half.

Petaia came close to incredibly touching down from a Hunter Paisami grubber early in the match, but the star centre couldn't quite ground the ball in the field of play before putting a toe on the dead-ball line.

Later, a forward pass from Tom Banks from a swift backline play saw Marika Koroibete's "on-field" try disallowed too.

But for all of their running and attacking potency, the Wallabies had little to show from their dominance in the first half.

It was a factor that Rennie lamented.

“Yeah, we should have been ahead further,” Rennie said. “That’s been an issue for us so far.

“We’ve got to be more clinical. Turn pressure into points.

“Really Argentina never looked like scoring all night.

“I think we defended well at times, but we’ve got to turn pressure into points. Frustrating for us all. Wisey’s (Scott Wisemantel) doing a fantastic job around our attack, but it’s one more phase and at times a ruck’s not a disaster we’ve just got to hang on and go an extra couples of phases and apply pressure.

“We just felt if we could score straight after half time we could probably blow the game out. They had made a lot of tackles, we felt they were fatiguing and just hanging in there but we didn’t put them out of it and it hurt us in the end.”

Eventually it came back to bite them as the errors crept in and Sanchez made them pay, with the cunning No.10 slotting two long-range penalties from close to halfway. 

His third penalty in the space of seven minutes saw Argentina level up the match in the 70th minute.

The draw meant the Wallabies once again failed to build on the momentum from the Bledisloe win and string consecutive games together. But Wallabies captain Michael Hooper didn’t think his side had lost the art of winning.

'“It’s a big statement,” Hooper responded. “I think Dave summed it up with what we need to do to be better.

“Stick to our game-plan a little bit harder. Be a little bit more relentless on what we set out to do and adapt on the run. We didn’t know it was going to rain. We didn’t know it was going to be wet in the first half, even greasy with that pill. So how we could have capitalised on that, a lot of guys in the front line, so just sticking to our stuff harder.”

Both sides traded penalties inside the opening six minutes of the match.

But it was the Wallabies that dominated all the running inside the opening half-hour. 

Centres Paisami and Petaia, as well as winger Tom Wright, looked threatening with every touch they had, but the Wallabies weren't able to hold on to the ball for any great length of time.

Eventually, the Pumas paid the price for failing to turn pressure into points as Sanchez slotted a penalty in the 32nd minute to see the "home side" to a 6-3 lead.

Feeling the pinch, the Wallabies then were helped by a series of penalties and Hooper pointed to the posts to get his side back on track as Hodge nailed a long-range penalty.

The Wallabies then benefited from a Sanchez brain explosion as the feisty No.10 lashed out at Taniela Tupou to give away a penalty. Soon after, the Pumas were on their final warning after giving away another penalty at the ruck and Hodge banged over three more points from straight in front to give the Wallabies a 9-6 lead at half-time.

Referee Paul Williams' warning fell on deaf ears though, as hooker Julian Montoya was penalised and shown a yellow card early in the second half.

The infringement allowed Hodge to step up and extend the Wallabies' lead to six points after 46 minutes.

Poor handling and equally poor decision-making meant the Wallabies didn't make use of the extra man on the field.

The Pumas could have lost another to the sin bin in the match too as captain Pablo Matera pulled Brandon Paenga-Amosa's hair. But the incident wasn't looked at by Williams despite multiple replays showing the grubby act. 

The incident continued the heated theme of the match, where there were a number of push and shoves.

Hodge's fifth penalty after 57 minutes looked like being a match-winning penalty as he extended the Wallabies' lead to beyond a converted try.

But it was then that the momentum shifted in the match.

The Wallabies choked up, lost their discipline as well as their advantage at the scrum and the Pumas could sniff a comeback.

Ledesma said his side were outplayed but believed that the longer the match went that the greater their chance of stealing victory were given that the Wallabies had failed to take their chances earlier in the match.

"We needed to put on a bit scoreboard pressure," the former Wallabies scrum coach said.

"They were having a lot of opportunities and we knew that maybe if we score some points that they would get nervous because the difference should have been more that. It showed when we got that penalty at 15-9, the momentum shifted a little bit."

In the end, it was the Wallabies that were forced to run the ball into touch and settle for a draw as the Pumas hoofed the ball long for their speedy outside back Santiago Cordero. 

Ledesma said it wouldn't have been fair for the Wallabies to lose, but his side were disappointed they couldn't pinch the win at the death.

"No, no (we're not happy) and especially not the boys because they obviously had the taste in their mouth with that last ball and had Cordero won the race to the last ball he could have scored," he said.

"Would it have been fair? No. But he could have scored.

"Obviously we weren't clinical and didn't have a lot of shape and they're disappointed with their performance."

Even still, the Pumas coach couldn't fault his side's character, particularly after the emotionally sapping week after shocking the world last weekend by beating the All Blacks for the first time.

"The first emotion that I have is being proud of the boys," he said.

"The boys just hung in there." 

The Wallabies will now have another week off as the All Blacks play the Pumas on November 28 again in Newcastle.

AT A GLANCE

WALLABIES 15 (Hodge 5 pen) drew with PUMAS 15 (Sanchez 5 pen)