It took until September but Australia can finally celebrate a win in 2023. In the end, it was very much worth the wait and may just have raised expectations about how deep they can go at this Rugby World Cup.
Eddie Jones wouldn’t have wanted to lose his first five games back in charge of the Wallabies but after continually stressing that the Rugby Championship and subsequent warm-up games were simply about the process rather than the results and that the World Cup would be the real quiz, the head coach will have felt a sense of vindication at the impressive 35-15 triumph over Georgia.
The first 40 minutes at the Stade de France especially were as good a period of rugby as Australia have put together in a long, long time – not just in the Jones redux era.
They looked fluent and clinical in attack right from the off, as two tries inside the first 10 minutes stunned their opponents and arguably ended the game as a contest before it had really begun.
The breakdown became the Wallbies’ personal playground as the physically imposing pack that Jones had extolled the virtues of in the build-up to this clash consistently won the collision before the disruptive back row of Fraser McReight, Tom Hooper and Rob Valetini would swarm all over the ball, refusing to let Georgia settle into a rhythm.
That pack dominance transferred over to the scrum, where the traditionally brutal Georgian forward unit were overpowered as the front row of Angus Bell, Dave Porecki and Taniela Tupou splintered their opposite numbers.
But perhaps most impressive was the kicking game. Carter Gordon and Ben Donaldson – the youthful, inexperienced fly half-full back combo to which Jones has entrusted this entire World Cup campaign – rained long bombs down on a flustered Georgian back three. Long-range touch finders flipped field position, the territory battle was dominated by those in gold and their opponents were constantly back-pedalling.
In fact, it was a 50-22 barely a minute into the game that led to the first try as a neat lineout move set up a strike play that ended with Jordan Petaia spinning his way over in the corner.
That set the tone and when Marika Koroibete scythed through the defensive line shortly after, before Petaia’s pass sent the always-impressive Mark Nawaqanitawase over out wide, an early marker had been laid down.
Donaldson’s penalties ratcheted the half-time score up to 21-3 and for the first time in over two years, the Wallabies could celebrate scoring more than 20 points in an opening 40 minutes.
Now time for some caveats. Georgia are the fourth-best side in Pool C and, while this was an obstacle that needed overcoming, Australia’s World Cup won’t be defined by a victory over the Lelos. Tougher tests against Fiji and Wales await, with at least one win needed to put them in the mix for a quarter-final spot, where the real work would then begin.
This was also not Georgia at their best. The eastern Europeans had won 14 of their last 16 Tests, mostly, although not exclusively, against tier-two nations but looked nervous on the biggest stage.
The only previous meeting between the sides came in the 2019 pool stage when the Georgians made a World Cup record 218 tackles, yet they missed at least five in the first few minutes alone this time around and were duly punished. Poor decision-making also cost them as young star Davit Niniashvili made a clean line-break early in the second half but tried to cut inside rather than out, running away from his support, and then threw an ill-advised blind offload backwards. It was collected by the Wallabies and in the blink of an eye, Donaldson was racing underneath the posts for a 14-point swing.
The 24-year-old full back was another success story on the day as he later powered his way across the line for a second try and a 25-point personal tally deservedly earned him play of the match honours in a brilliant all-round display.
Pre-match, a lot had been made of Jones’s decision to have Donaldson start at full back for the first time in his international career after just 83 total minutes of Test rugby. Even at club level, only seven of his 39 Super Rugby starts for the Waratahs have come at No 15.
But the divisive Australia coach will have allowed himself another smile at the decision paying off in style, even if his reputation as the pantomime villain of rugby shows no sign of abating – as demonstrated by a hearty chorus of jeers and whistles from the Stade de France crowd every time his face appeared on the big screens.
There were a healthy number of Georgian fans in attendance and every neutral in the ground was vociferously supporting the underdog, meaning the biggest cheer of the day came when Luka Matkava floated a flat pass out to Luka Ivanishvili to power over for Georgia’s first try just after half-time. They added a second late on when Beka Gigashvili finished off a number of phases of play.
But that couldn’t put a dampener on a day where Australia may just have their fans dreaming a little harder than they thought possible. Jones has always geared everything in his coaching career towards peaking at World Cups and, even with just a few months on the job, he might have struck gold again.
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