A 72nd-minute try from debutante Quade Cooper saved Australia from humiliation as the Wallabies edged out Italy 30-20 at Stadio Euganeo in Padova on Saturday.
Up against a pumped-up Azzurri, Robbie Deans’ side were pushed to the very limit and only secured victory in the dying minutes. The scoreline read 20-20 with 10 minutes remaining after the teams swapped ends deadlocked at 14-14.
Sporting Life reports that Australia looked lethargic and were punished for making endless unforced errors – kicks went out on the full, passes went to ground and line-out throw-ins went astray as the home side hussled and muscled their lacklustre visitors.
The tourists will be thanking their lucky stars for a faultless kicking effort from replacement fly-half Matt Giteau, who contributed five penalties and two conversions in his 65 minutes on the park.
The Italian pack was at its awesome best, giving the Wallabies all kinds of trouble in the set pieces and tight exchanges. Nick Mallett will continue to say his prayers for a world-class fly-half and one or two more quality back-line players, as the Italians just lacked a little firepower to truly trouble the Wallaby defences out wide.
How much Australia’s disappointing display had to do with their long trip from Hong Kong just six days ago we’ll never know but Deans’ troops will need to make a massive improvement if they hope to succeed on the other side of the channel.
The men in blue must be commended for playing to their strengths and generally giving their much-fancied opponents the hurry-up whenever Australia were in possession, forcing the men in gold to make a mountain of errors.
The first 20 minutes gave the impression that Italy might be in for a very long afternoon. Stirling Mortlock and Timana Tahu were breaking through the Italian line in midfield almost at will.
With Berrick Barnes alternating between sending the ball straight up in the air and chipping it through, the Italian pack were being made to turn on their heels far more often than they would have liked.
Mortlock put Australia ahead after just two minutes with an easy penalty, but Italy fly-half Andrea Marcato leveled the scores a few minutes later.
As expected, it was the visitors who would be first to strike. The crowd were up in arms when Marcato was bumped of the ball in mid-air by Barnes – from the lose ball the Wallabies sent the ball wide quickly, Tahu broke the line before providing Lachie Turner with a deft one-handed offload. The flying wing did the rest from 10 metres out and the Italy looked in trouble.
Despite being deprived of any meaningful possession in the opening exchanges the locals stayed in touch as Marcato reduced the gap to two when Australia were blown up for hanging on.
Referee Bryce Lawrence lashed the Aussies at the rucks all game, whether it was for sticking their hands where they didn’t belong, or holding on for too long.
An injury to Barnes after a quarter of an hour did not bode well for the rest of Australia’s tour as Giteau was forced to enter the fray in his place. The Wallaby replacement fly-half kicked a penalty to make the score 6-11, but the home side had started clawing their way into the game.
After a tentative start, Marcato was clearly growing in confidence and slotted a drop from nowhere before Italy truly threw the cat amongst the pigeons.
Marcato linked up with full-back Andrea Masi who hit the line with pace before committing Adam Ashley-Cooper to the tackle and timing his offload to wing Mirco Bergamasco to perfection. Bergamasco flew over and put the home side ahead.
Giteau drew the scores level in the 28th minute with another penalty and the teams headed for half-time level at 14-14.
The second half was a story of frustration for Australia as the Italian pack rumbled forward. Mortlock punting the ball directly into touch while on attack seemed to sum the afternoon up for the men in gold.
Giteau slotted two penalties to give Australia what seemed like a healthy lead before Brive fly-half Luciano Orquera, on for Marcato, kicked six points of his own to set up a grandstand finish.
Italy’s hopes faded however when Cooper emerged clear after a dummy run by Phil Waugh left the Italian defence wrong-footed. The Azzurri were up in arms as it looked like Mortlock had obstructed Sergio Parisse while Cooper scored untouched.
Giteau added the conversion and another penalty two minutes from time to seal the deal
Man of the match: If Italy had pulled off the upset, Sergio Parisse and Marco Bortolami would have been made honorary presidents. The Australian back-line looked more dangerous with Barnes playing fly-half, but Matt Giteau’s performance from the kicking tee saved his team.
Moment of the match: There could only be one. Quade Cooper’s try was like manna from heaven for Australia.
Villain of the match: No argie-bargie to report.
Tries: Mirco Bergamasco
Pens: Marcato 2, Orquera 2
Tries: Turner, Q. Cooper
Cons: Giteau 2
Pens: Mortlock, Giteau 5
Italy: 15 Andrea Masi, 14 Kaine Robertson, 13 Gonzalo Canale, 12 Gonzalo Garcia, 11 Mirco Bergamasco, 10 Andrea Marcato, 9 Pablo Canavosio, 8 Sergio Parisse (captain), 7 Mauro Bergamasco, 6 Josh Sole, 5 Marco Bortolami, 4 Carlo Antonio Del Fava, 3 Carlos Nieto, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Salvatore Perugini.
Replacements: 16 Fabio Ongaro, 17 Matias Aguero, 18 Tommaso Reato, 19 Alessandro Zanni, 20 Giulio Toniolatti, 21 Luciano Orquera, 22 Matteo Pratichetti.
Australia: 15 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 14 Lachie Turner, 13 Stirling Mortlock (c), 12 Timana Tahu, 11 Digby Ioane, 10 Berrick Barnes, 9 Luke Burgess, 8 Richard Brown, 7 Phil Waugh, 6 Dean Mumm, 5 Hugh McMeniman, 4 Mark Chisholm, 3 Matt Dunning, 2 Stephen Moore, 1 Ben Alexander.
Replacements: 16 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 17 Sekope Kepu, 18 Wycliff Palu, 19 David Pocock, 20 Matt Giteau, 21 Quade Cooper, 22 James O’Connor.