Retiring French referee Romain Poite has been at the centre of a controversial farewell Test as his decision-making may have played a key role in the Wallabies suffering the end of their unbeaten run with a 15-13 defeat by Scotland at Murrayfield.
The Wallabies’ five-match winning streak came to an end after a scrappy but compelling arm-wrestle, the 65,700 full house at Edinburgh’s famous venue being left to celebrate a third straight win over Australia on Monday morning (AEDT) after tries from Hamish Watson and debutant Ewan Ashman.
The injury-ravaged Australians, beaten to the punch up front for much of the match, did answer with a try from blindside flanker Rob Leota but, though they defended valiantly, their attack was disjointed and largely blunted by the streetwise Scots over the 80 minutes.
After 65 minutes, Dave Rennie’s men could still have snatched victory as they went 13-12 ahead with a third successful kick from James O’Connor, but Finn Russell’s swift response with another penalty three minutes later put paid to Australia’s best winning run since 2015.
Still, the Wallabies were left irritated by a first-half turning point when Michael Hooper’s try was ruled out by Poite in the last Test of his 15-year career.
Instead, he ruled harshly that Allan Ala’alatoa had made contact Matt Fagerson’s head with a swinging arm during the clean-out that led to the score, and sent the Wallabies’ prop to the sin-bin.
The evidently irritated Hooper pleaded with the Frenchman “you’re the ref…he didn’t do anything” only to be told pointedly that he’d be prepared to talk to the captain about the incident after the match.
“I’m not one to have a crack at referees around decisions but I thought it was a pretty rough decision against us,” said Rennie, adding how he felt his side were penalised unfairly at the scrum.
“I certainly didn’t agree with a number of the decisions.”
But, ultimately, he could have no complaints about how his side, weakened by their key Japanese-based absentees, were slack in decision-making, discipline and cohesion.
“We didn’t play anywhere near as well as we’d like to,” said Rennie. “We’ve got to be able to build pressure for longer.
“We’ve got more in us – we certainly need to be a lot better against England (on Saturday).”
However, wing Jordan Petaia, with a hamstring injury, and powerhouse forward Taniela Tupou, who took a head knock, could struggle to make the Twickenham match.
After O’Connor had screwed an early penalty shot wide amid ragged stop-start fare, the Scots turned down a penalty shot at goal to kick for the corner. From the resulting 22nd minute line-out, Watson powered over to give the Scots the lead.
The Wallabies hit back strongly, winger Tom Wright having a score ruled out only because of an earlier infringement from the impressive Hunter Paisami.
After the disallowed Hooper try, Petaia and Rob Valetini were sidelined with injuries before halftime before O’Connor got the Aussies on the board with a penalty just before the break.
The short-handed Wallabies did go ahead after 45 minutes when Leota found a good angle to crash through a tackle, with O’Connor converting.
But when replacement Tupou was helped off groggily after running into Sam Johnson and Ala’alatoa also went off for a head injury assessment, the depleted Australian scrum increasingly came under pressure.
In the 55th minute, replacement hooker Ashman, who’d come on in the early minutes after an injury to George Turner, scored the decisive try any winger would have been proud of, flying over in the corner under challenge from two Australian defenders.
Hooper was left frustrated, despite loving the electric atmosphere that ripped through a chilly Murrayfield afternoon, admitting: “That’s been a setback today but the fire in the belly hasn’t been extinguished at all.”