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Rennie’s Wallabies pull off remarkable 21-point comeback as next gen stands up

CARDIFF – Two minutes of magic from Lachlan Lonergan has saved the Wallabies from their worst season since 1958, as Dave Rennie’s men somehow came from the dead to defeat Wales at their fortress, 39-34.

Starring down the barrel of their 10th defeat of the year, the Wallabies overturned a 34-13 deficit midway through the second half to take the lead in the 79th minute as Lonergan scored to flatten the packed house at the Principality.

It was yet another dagger in the Welsh hearts after the pain of watching their football side suffer a dramatic 2-0 loss in the football World Cup almost 24 hours earlier, which all but meant they would miss out on the round of 16 in their first campaign in more than half-a-century.

Lonergan, who gave away a penalty at the breakdown soon after as the Wallabies looked to hold on, then had the last laugh as he somehow came away with the ball at the ruck and ran towards his goal line and kicked the ball into the stands to seal an incredible comeback.

“He’s (Lonergan) having a quiet one,” Rennie said. “I’m not sure if it’s out of relief or celebration.”

The 21-point comeback was just shy of the effort Michael Cheika’s side produced in 2018, where the Wallabies overcame a 24-point deficit to overrun Argentina in Salta to seal their biggest comeback.

Wallabies rookie Mark Nawaqanitawase started the comeback, as he continued his breakout season. Had the World Rugby awards been this Sunday and not last, Nawaqanitawase could well have been a late addition to the rookie of the year.

Australia players celebrate at the final whistle after the Autumn International match at Principality Stadium, Cardiff. Picture date: Saturday November 26, 2022. (Photo by David Davies/PA Images via Getty Images)

Australia players celebrate at the final whistle after the Autumn International match at Principality Stadium, Cardiff. Picture date: Saturday November 26, 2022. (Photo by David Davies/PA Images via Getty Images)

The 22-year-old, who made his debut during the Italian disaster a fortnight ago but was one of a few players to leave Florence with his stocks rising, scored twice in quick succession to give the Wallabies an outside chance.

A yellow card and penalty try, where Lonergan was only denied by an illegal effort from the Welsh to bring down their rolling maul, saw the Wallabies cut the deficit to two points in the 73rd minute.

After a kicking duel where neither side wanted to break, Nawaqanitawase once again was the man who got the Wallabies rolling.

He made a break down the left-hand side before linking up with his halfback Tate McDermott, who was lively off the bench, and moments later Lonergan found space out wide before running the ball back closer to the posts.

Another twist was around the corner as Lonergan was penalised, but the 23-year-old more than made up for the moment as he ended up with the ball.

The remarkable victory has certainly put an end to any talk that Dave Rennie won’t be coaching the Wallabies at next year’s World Cup.

Changes will still likely be forthcoming, with an independent selector already floated.

Scrum coach Petrus du Plessis is also coming under scrutiny too, with the Wallabies giving away half-a-dozen penalties at the set-piece including three penalties at the end of the first half as well as one to start the second half, which saw replacement prop Tom Robertson shown a yellow card.

Australia's Mark Nawaqanitawase evades a tackle from Wales' Alex Cuthbert as he runs in to score a try during the Autumn International match at Principality Stadium, Cardiff. Picture date: Saturday November 26, 2022. (Photo by David Davies/PA Images via Getty Images)

Australia’s Mark Nawaqanitawase evades a tackle from Wales’ Alex Cuthbert as he runs in to score a try. (Photo by David Davies/PA Images via Getty Images)

Rennie, who was his natural cool, calm, collected self and hardly broke out a smile, said he never feared the Wallabies could not get back into the match.

“I’m the eternal optimist,” he said.

“I just felt even in the first half, when we had a bit of continuity, they looked tired so we felt if we could hold onto the ball for a while we could put a bit of heat on them. We just needed to play at the right end of the field.”

For now, the Wallabies will celebrate their remarkable victory, which came after another six players were injured during the 13-10 defeat to world No.1 side Ireland a week ago. Overseas-based Wallabies Will Skelton and Bernard Foley also missed the Test.

“It’s definitely up there, probably in the top three [victories I’ve been a part of],” Allan Alaalatoa said, having played 70 minutes before being replaced.

“Being in that position on the field, away from home, at the Principality Stadium against Wales, to come back and show that character, it’s huge. I’ll remember this game forever.”

With the exceptions of a blowout against Los Pumas in Argentina and at Eden Park against the All Blacks, as well as a miserable performance in Sydney against the Springboks, the Wallabies have been in the contest all year despite their horrible injury toll.

In fact, the Wallabies ended their Spring Tour with a points differential of plus-one.

Narrow defeats to Ireland (three points) and France (one point) also showed the Wallabies aren’t far away.

But the million-dollar question was whether the Wallabies had the killer instinct?

The rousing effort against England in Perth, the All Blacks in Melbourne, where they went down after the most controversial of endings, and today against Wales in Cardiff showed that, at the very least, they are a side with bucketloads of character.

“It was a game around momentum,” Rennie said.

“I thought we were fantastic off the bench; we went early to them and we had all the momentum late in the game.

“Huge amount of ticker within our group, and we had a number of guys who played in the Italy game and it was a chance for redemption today.

“We had a number of young guys who fronted today as well. We’re stoked. It’s a nice way to finish off.”

The Wallabies started well enough as Matthew Carley awarded a penalty to the visitors after Wales collapsed the scrum. Ben Donaldson banged over three points in the fourth minute to ease the nerves and help put his missed conversion attempt on debut against Italy from a fortnight earlier.

The Wallabies’ next generation then tried to make an impression, as Langi Gleeson timed his tackle to perfect to smash Josh Adams from a Jake Gordon clearing box kick

But the Wallabies lacked the punch and starch in defence when it mattered most, as Alun Wyn Jones broke through some soft defence and did superbly to offload and find his blindside teammate Jac Morgan, who carried over defenders to score.

The Wallabies got three points back, as a high tackle allowed Donaldson to kick his second penalty. But, in an unfortunate blow, captain James Slipper was forced from the field as he underwent a Head Injury Assessment.

He returned 10 minutes later, but by that point the margin was 17-6 after Taulupe Faletau rolled back the years to finish marvellously out wide. It came after Justin Tipuric had found some space, and with front-foot ball Gareth Anscome sent the ball wide and the Lions veteran showed the strength, speed and nous to score.

It took until the half-hour mark for the Wallabies to get back some momentum as the new boy on the block, Nawaqanitawase, showed his strength, pace and off-loading ability as he created something out of nothing for Reece Hodge.

The Wallabies didn’t score, but it was an early warning shot that was followed by some more power from the rookie winger.

Folau Fainga’a, who missed the mark with his first throw of the evening, then managed to get on the end of another rolling maul to score his fifth try of the year – a team high – to bring the Wallabies back into the match.

Wales looked set to extend their lead in the moments before half time but a great try-saver from Tom Wright repelled the home side.

But in the ensuing ruck Gordon failed to get back on side on his try-line and was shown a yellow card.

Tipruic opted for a scrum. It looked like proving to be the right call as the Wallabies gave away three penalties before Carley warned Slipper the next penalty would see the visitors lose another to the sin bin.

The scrum finally held up and so did the Wallabies’ defence, as Wales were held up over the line to end the half.

More pain was around the corner as Robertson, who replaced Slipper at half-time, was shown a yellow card as the Wallabies gave away a scrum penalty to start the half.

Wales took full advantage of the two-man numerical advantage, scoring twice as Morgan grabbed his second before Rio Dyer crossed out wide.

The Wallabies got back in the game through Nawaqanitawase as Rennie turned to his bench.

Wales, meanwhile, lost Anscombe to yet another injury in a devastating blow to the New Zealand-born playmaker.

Tipuric’s yellow card for a trip on Pete Samu, who was once again excellent off the bench, gave Rennie’s men the opening they needed and, as they said, the rest is history as the Wallabies pulled off a victory that summed up their roller-coaster year.

“We’re a really tight group,” Rennie said.

“It’s just great to show that on the park tonight under a bit of adversity.

“Even at half-time, we’ve got a yellow card and we know Slips is not coming back on, we’ve been in that situation a number of times and we’ve fought through it. Things got worse for the next 15 or so minutes.

“The tour’s given us a chance to test people like Mark Nawaqanitawase and others to see how they deal with the pressure cooker, so I think from that point of view it’s been good for us.

“It’s frustrating losing because we played really well in Paris, we played really well in Dublin, so we’ve got to find ways of winning those arm-wrestles, so nice to get one tonight.”

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