PERTH, Australia -- The Wallabies really had no right to win this one. But such is the determination and character of this Australia side under Dave Rennie that they found a way to again win with 14 men and, in doing so, at last ended their six-year losing streak against England.
First Australia lost Quade Cooper in the warm-up, then Tom Banks and Allan Alaalatoa succumbed to injury and concussion respectively, before the mother of all brain-fades from Brumbies lock Darcy Swain resulted in a red card. The first 30-odd minutes were an unmitigated disaster for the Wallabies.
England, meanwhile, enjoyed a mountain of first-half front-foot ball where they continually won the collisions, the tourists' big forward pack doing damage as they tore into the Wallabies' defensive line and picked up metres through contact.
But Eddie Jones' side failed to capitalise on their momentum -- at least until the final two minutes of the match -- as the Wallabies snapped a run of eight straight defeats by England dating back to their 2016 series sweep.
"We're rapt, we're absolutely rapt with the character," Wallabies coach Dave Rennie said. "I thought the first half, as we talked about at halftime, we lost the collisions, both sides of the ball, and we struggled to get our game going.
"Obviously we lost Quade before the whistle, then Allan and Banksy, and then a red card to Darcy, but things were calm in the changing room, we've got a plan [to play with 14]. I thought the leadership on the run, with that sort of challenge with a player missing, was excellent and we showed a lot of character."
Such has been course of Cooper's career, that the rejuvenated fly-half's calf injury in the warm-up should never have really shocked. Drama has always followed Cooper, and the sight of him sitting dejected beneath the sticks as the hosts completed their preparations was the first of a tidal wave of Australian setbacks.
But in crisis there is often opportunity and this may well be the night when Noah Lolesio proved he belonged at Test level. With Quade scratched, Lolesio jumped from warm-up defensive duties to chief playmaker with kick-off only minutes away.
The young Brumbies playmaker would go on to have a brilliant game, one blotted only by a late deliberate knockdown that led to the second of England's consolation tries. But Lolesio was perfect from the kicking tee, collecting 15 points, and he steered the Wallabies around with the control of the player who had spent a fortnight in the driver's seat, not someone who had only the sparing reps of a replacement.
"Awesome, and there was a reason why he was on the bench, he performed really well for the Brumbies, he's trained really well for the last couple of weeks and we've got a lot of confidence [in him]," Rennie said of Lolesio, whose Test career to date has been a roller coaster ride.
"He found out maybe the last couple of minutes of our warm-up. He didn't blink an eye, he was ready to go... I thought Noah was excellent, his goal-kicking under pressure again, we've seen that a lot of times, really impressive."
In truth, England dominated the first half, yet they would go to the break finding themselves locked at six-apiece. The power running of Billy Vunipola, Ellis Genge and Tom Curry, who very nearly laid on a try for Joe Marchant but for a brilliant Marika Koroibete covering tackle, should have resulted in more points.
With Australia losing first Banks to injury, the fullback suffering a sickening broken arm after he had challenged a restart, and then Alaalatoa to concussion, to compound Cooper's pre-match exit, the last thing the Wallabies needed was ill-discipline.
But that's exactly what they got from Swain, who was perfectly baited into a piece of foul play that will likely result in a suspension. With England lock Jonny Hill pulling on Swain's hair in a maul, the duo came to a standing wrestle before parting. Then, however, Swain lunged at Hill with his head.
What looked like a clear head butt left referee James Doleman with little choice but to send the Wallabies lock for an early shower. Hill, too, paid the price for his antagonism with a yellow card, while the Englishman may also come under the focus from the citing commissioner from an earlier incident that appeared to spark the maul altercation, with Hill shoving Swain in the face.
Despite that incident, the Wallabies went into halftime in a reasonable mood given they had played on the back foot for much of the first half and yet were even at 6-6.
"We've just got stay nice and calm, it's not the first time teams have played with a red card this year, we just need to adapt," Wallabies assistant Dan McKellar told Stan Sport at halftime. "We've proven it in the past, obviously with Marika's [red] last year, there's not a whole lot of stress in [the changing room], we've dealt with it, [as] franchises, throughout the year.
"So we've just got to adapt and understand it's 6-all, we haven't really fired a whole lot of shots yet and it's all ahead of us."
McKellar's reference to Koroibete's red card in the series-clinching victory over France in Brisbane last year was to be right on the money.
Still, it was England who came out the stronger in the second half after an early Lolesio penalty. Ellis Genge's try from a rolling maul nine minutes after the resumption, their one-man advantage restored, appeared to set the tone for what was going to be a comfortable win for the tourists. Owen Farrell's penalty 10 minutes later only further embedded that thinking, even if England's lead as still only five points.
But then Koroibete produced the exact kind of play that will have made him one of Rennie's three overseas selections, the winger soaring through the air to catch the restart over the top of Jack Nowell and, with the ball unplayable on the deck, win the Wallabies the scrum.
With that, Australia, virtually for the first time in the match, had some field position. And after a succession of phases, with Samu Kerevi and Matt Philip prominent, the centre flung the ball wide to Len Ikitau, who quickly passed to Andrew Kellaway, the winger producing the silkiest of transfers to promote the ball to Jordan Petaia who powered through Danny Care and between the English cover to score.
Up 16-14, with Lolesio's conversion from wide out, the Wallabies had somehow scrapped their way to an unlikely lead.
And they would take a sizeable step towards an even more unlikely victory when Billy Vunipola was sin-binned for a high tackle on Wallabies captain Michael Hooper. Missed by referee Doleman, TMO Brendon Pickerill intervened to alert Doleman of the indiscretion and, following multiple replays, Vunipola was shown yellow.
From there the Wallabies kicked to the corner and with the Brumbies rolling maul master Folau Fainga'a now on the paddock, there was only ever going to be one result. McKellar had earlier this week declared the Wallabies wanted to develop "the best maul in the world", and on the evidence of Fainga'a's five-pointer they may well be on the way to doing so.
Another clutch Lolesio conversion followed, before England claimed the restart and immediately went on the attack. Again, the Wallabies lifted, this time through replacement Pete Samu, who got over the ball and won a vital penalty just as it appeared the visitors would hit back immediately.
To rub salt into the wound of that near miss, Australia then obliterated England's scrum. Within moments they were inside the visitors' 22 and hard on the attack. And just as he had done on defence, Samu produced another superb individual play with some sharp footwork at the line, the back-rower splitting the English defence to score and bring a crowd that had been near silent during the first half into raptures of unbridled joy.
The Wallabies got great injections of energy from all of their replacement players, while Kerevi produced a powerhouse display of ball-carrying that saw him throw himself into the English defence, even when he was met with a brick wall. As the game went on Kerevi was able to bend that defensive line more often, particularly through Marcus Smith, and it was hard to deny him man-of-the-match honours despite Kellaway, Lolesio and debutant Dave Porecki also having superb outings.
England, meanwhile, will take positives from the fashion in which they finished the match, particularly the introduction of wunderkind Henry Arundell, who scored a brilliant solo try with his touch in Test rugby, and then generated the field position for Jack van Poortvliet's post-siren five-pointer.
But there will be much soul-searching this week, and only increased pressure on Jones, as for large parts of the match England were unable to break down the Wallabies despite a mountain of front-foot ball.
"Well we had opportunities to put pressure on them but we just let them off at various stages," Jones said. "A couple of times we were on their line and had opportunities to score and we didn't score, and conversely when they had opportunities to score they scored straight away."
The England coach is adamant his combinations, the Marcus Smith-Owen Farrell axis in particular, will eventually click.
Jones also said that it was "human nature" that referees favour a side that had had someone sent off.
"That always happens, mate, if you look at the history of the game whenever you get a red card, the referee evens it up, that's the history," the England coach said referring to Doleman's second-half officiating. "It's social reciprocality [reciprocity]; that happens mate, that's normal, but we've got to be good enough to handle it."
While Jones denied he was suggesting England had failed to get the rub of the green, it was clear he thought his side had been hard done by.
"I'm not criticising the referee at all, I'm not using it as an excuse, it's just the reality of rugby," he said.
Despite those comments, this match was not about Doleman and instead all about the Wallabies. After an inconsistent 2021 when they finished with a 7-7 record, Saturday night's victory could well prove the making of this Australian team.
For just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong for the Wallabies in Perth. And yet, somehow, they were able to come away with an unforgettable victory.
After six years of misery at the hands of Jones, their 30-28 triumph will be particularly sweet.