A brave comeback from the Wallaroos came up just short today when they were beaten 16-14 by the USA in the Pacific Four Series in west Auckland.
The Wallaroos pulled back a 16-0 deficit with two tries when riding a strong wind and more decisive play in the final 25 minutes.
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Hooker Ashley Marsters bullocked over for a try off a rolling maul at the 70-minute mark. When fullback Lori Cramer potted the conversion from near the sideline, the Wallaroos knew they had a huge chance.
Replacement centre-flyhalf Arabella McKenzie’s big boot for a 50-22 had already set up the field position for the first strikeback try scored by centre Georgina Friedrichs on 59 minutes.
Another booming kick, this time for 60m, with the strong wind behind her pushed the Wallaroos into the American quarter with three minutes to play at The Trusts Arena.
Unfortunately, replacement hooker Tiarna Molloy’s first lineout throw as a Wallaroo 20m out was a poor one. It gave lock Michaela Leonard little chance to secure the excellent lineout catch she had commanded to initiate the Marsters try.
The Australians still weren’t done and a strong push in a late scrum gave the hint of a turnover of possession. The Americans wound down the clock and celebrated.
The Americans are ranked No.7 in the world so it was a good read on how much the No.6-ranked Australians have to improve to be a top five factor at the Rugby World Cup for women in New Zealand later this year.
The Wallaroos will certainly have to iron out their clunky attack. There was little penetration from the backs and, again, ball was too often received when flat-footed.
McKenzie built a strong case to regain the starting No.10 jersey ahead of Trilleen Pomare. It was McKenzie taking on the line that set up the Friedrichs try after a helpful bobble off the hand of Pomare.
There are definite strengths to the Wallaroos’ game. Centre Friedrichs, No.8 Grace Hamilton and lock Michaela Leonard have impressed in each of the four Tests played over the past six weeks. The players are pushing hard. Marsters might have played out the full game but for cramps forcing her off.
Skipper Shannon Parry lamented a close loss that could so easily have had a different result.
“At half-time, we obviously thought that closing the gap was doable with the wind in the second half,” Parry said.
“We really just didn’t execute at crucial times and it’s disappointing we didn’t capitalise on front foot ball.
“We didn’t get to flick the switch on our game plan enough.”
Parry said more kicking in the second half would have paid greater dividends knowing how hard it was for the Americans to exit their territory into the stiff wind.
Added coach Jay Tregonning: “We were very happy with the attitude and effort but there are things we have to do better like when and where to attack.
"We're building for the World Cup but we want to be winning these games too.
“The finishers definitely did the job they were tasked with and Arabella came on and got us on the front foot with her kicking.”
Replacement Eva Kapani made a strong tackle and fellow prop Madi Schuck wrestled the turnover in a strong play just after they came off the bench early in the second half.
Marsters made some telling tackles as the rally grew momentum.
It was a fine response after the American women were more physical and far more effective with ball-carries in the first half.
They shunted the Wallaroos at scrum time, overwhelmingly dominated territory and led 13-0 at half-time.
The Americans had a strong wind behind them so there was always the goal to stay in touch to get that breeze in the sails for the second 40 minutes.
It was only the resolve, stiff tackling and scrambling heart of the Wallaroos that prevented more damage on the scoreboard in the first 40 minutes.
Backrower Hamilton was immense as the Wallaroos’ only decisive ball-runner in that period. She carted off the back of buckling scrums and made one rumbling 15m charge with defenders draped all over her midway through the half before having the ball ripped away.
The Wallaroos had devoted plenty of time in their build-up to their ruck work and chop tackling and both assets were again a great strength.
Standout centre Friedrichs won an early turnover by getting hands on American ball. At the nine-minute mark, the USA started a driving maul surge at the line that was thwarted expertly by flanker Emily Chancellor spearing through the maul.
Hamilton was strong off the back of the resulting scrum, made a steal herself over the ball and the Wallaroos had made a strong 40m advance to get out of trouble.
This Test was a good measure for the Wallaroos. The Americans welcomed back nine players who had played in the Exeter-Saracens grand final in the English premiership.
The Americans have played more top-level rugby than the Wallaroos in recent seasons and this diet of Test rugby is just what the willing Aussies need to improve and re-learn the demands of an 80-minute international.
It won’t get any easier on Saturday when facing world No.3 Canada.
USA Eagles 16 (H Rogers try; G Cantorna conv, 3 pen goals) beat Australia 14 (G Friedrichs, A Marsters tries; L Cramer 2 conv)
WALLAROOS V USA TEAMS
WALLAROOS (1-15): Liz Patu, Ashley Marsters Bridie O'Gorman, Michaela Leonard, Kaitlan Leaney, Emily Chancellor, Shannon Parry (c), Grace Hamilton, Iliseva Batibasaga, Trilleen Pomare, Jemima McCalman, Pauline Piliae-Rasabale, Georgina Friedrichs, Mahalia Murphy, Lori Cramer
RESERVES:Tiarna Molloy, Madison Schuck, Eva Karpani, Annabelle Codey, Piper Duck, Layne Morgan, Cecilia Smith, Arabella McKenzie
USA (1-15): Hope Rogers, Joanna Kitlinksi, Nick James, Jordan Matyas, Hailie Taufoou, Elizabeth Cairns, Rachel Johnson, Kate Zackary (c), Bridget Kahele, Gabby Cantorna, Jennine Detiveaux, Katana Howard, Alev Kelter, Lotte Clapp, Bulou Mataitoga
RESERVES: Kathryn Treder, Maya Learned, Charli Jacoby, Kristine Sommer, Kathryn Johnson, Carly Waters, Megan Foster, Tess Feury