The ‘eternal optimist’ Dave Rennie never lost hope in his injury-ravaged side, with the Wallabies producing a stunning 21-point comeback to beat Wales 39-34 in Cardiff to close out their spring tour.
In one of the most incredible finishes to a Test in recent memory, young hooker Lachlan Lonergan crossed for the match-winning try with just 90 seconds remaining in the match, after the Dragons were reduced to 13 men.
The win meant Australia avoided the unwanted 64-year first of having their worst calendar year since 1958, and no doubt relieved the pressure on Rennie after a rollercoaster end to the year.
The Wallabies coach had to scramble to even fill a side against the former world no. 2, with 11 of the original 36-man spring tour squad unavailable: leaving Rennie 25 players from which to pick his 23-player game day team.
The absence of players like Michael Hooper, Nic White, Dave Porecki and Taniela Tupou just gave the likes of rising stars Mark Nawaqanitawase, Lonergan and Len Ikitau a chance to shine.
Nawaqanitawase in particular produced his best game in green and gold, scoring a second-half double and proving himself a nightmare for the Welsh defence all over the field.
The fringe Waratah started the Super Rugby season on the bench, but Dave Rennie called him up to the spring tour squad while the then-uncapped 22-year-old was on holiday in New Zealand.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
‘I guess that’s life,’ Nawaqanitawase said of his tough start to the Super Rugby season earlier in the year.
‘Things go up and down sometimes, but I’m grateful for where I am at the moment and I couldn’t score those tries without the boys.’
The electric winger said the inexperienced side wasn’t deterred by the outside noise prior to the match, and said the win proved the Wallabies could compete with the best ahead of the World Cup next year.
‘As you can see by the other games, we’ve only lost by a point to the top teams so don’t lose faith in us,’ he said.
‘We’ve got a strong team here. We back ourselves so hopefully everyone else backs us as well.’
Wales, who have been in a form slump of their own this year, dropping down seven ranking points to sit just behind Australia at no. 8, cruised to a 20-6 margin with less than half an hour played – and it looked like the Wallabies were set for yet another loss.
Skipper James Slipper then copped a head knock and was forced from the field, meaning Rennie was forced to call on back-up Sam Talakai; astonishingly the 51st player to be used by the Wallabies in an injury-ravaged 2022.
Crafty play by Folau Fainga’a after a powerful rolling maul gave Australia their first try in the 33rd minute; but Wales continued to pile on the pressure, and were up 34-13 with just 23 minutes remaining.
From there, carnage.
Two brilliant tries to Nawaqanitawase in the 57th and 67th minutes sparked Australia into action, bringing the deficit back to seven points with just over 10 to go.
A penalty try cut the margin to just two with seven minutes remaining, and the stage was set for a thrilling conclusion.
From a maul just seven metres out from their attacking try line, a sweeping move and a Welsh error found the back-up hooker out on the wing.
Lonergan scooped it up and scored with a spectacular swan dive, giving the inexperienced side the win with just seconds on the clock.
‘Pretty stoked,’ Lonergan laughed after the match in Stan Sport’s broadcast.
‘We were in the trenches there in the first half. At the start of the game, all we wanted to do was get a result and do whatever we had to do to do that.
‘At halftime we came together and said ‘we need to get a result’. Obviously our captain went down with that head knock. So as a team, we said we had to do it for him, our country, do it for Australia.’
The incredible comeback win relieved pressure on the under-fire Rennie – who has continued to face mounting criticism over the team’s rollercoaster performances ahead of the World Cup in France next September.
The New Zealand native now looks certain to lead the Wallabies to next year’s tournament, and he was particularly proud with the way in which they won based on the typical Aussie characteristics of grit, toughness and never-say-die attitude.
‘I’m the eternal optimist. Honestly, I genuinely felt with 20 to go and down by 21, there was plenty of time,’ he said after the match.
‘It was a game around momentum. We had all the momentum late in the game.
‘(There was a) Huge amount of ticker within our group. We had a number of guys who played in the Italy game and it was a chance for redemption today. We’ve had a number of young guys who really fronted up. We’re stoked. It’s a nice way to finish.
‘We haven’t beaten Wales for a while, so that’s positive. You get that monkey off your back. It’s more around the fight within the group. We had a pretty short training week.
‘We battled for a while but came home really strong. Rapt with the courage and character within the group,’ said a happy, but no doubt relieved, Rennie.
For his part, Stan commentator, and former Wallabies legend Tim Horan, said he didn’t ever really think Rennie’s job was in trouble.
‘I don’t think he’s ever lost the dressing room,’ he said on the broadcast.
‘James Slipper this week talked about the belief they have. There’s been a lot of injuries, which hasn’t helped. That’s a great performance. That last 20 minutes was some of the best Wallabies performance we’ve seen this year.’
Instead, it is now Wales coach Pivac who will now face the firing line after the Dragons lost nine of their last 12 Tests.
And how will the Wallabies celebrate finishing their long tour and rollercoaster year with a win?
‘You know exactly what’s gonna happen,’ Lonergan told Stan commentator Drew Mitchell after the match with a twinkle in his eye and thoughts of beer in his heart.