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Lolesio comes of age as Australia pass baptism of fire against England

At least once has the comparison been made between young tyros Marcus Smith and Noah Lolesio.

But while the Harlequins playmaker rightfully takes the plaudits for his razzle-dazzle approach to playing 10, Australia’s 30-28 victory against England at Optus Stadium in Perth owed much to his Brumbies equivalent.

Lolesio was already on the back foot when thrown into the starting lineup for this first of a three-match series after veteran Quade Cooper pulled up with a calf injury in the warmup (James O’Connor, not initially in the squad, was hastily drafted onto the bench).

Could he do it against what was likely to be a ferocious England defence and the 10-12 axis of Smith and Farrell?

As the Wallabies surged to victory, the feeling was that yes, the young tyro could and did.

Noah Lolesio

Noah Lolesio of the Wallabies. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

It wasn’t immediately apparent that Australia would win. England had the better of a ragged first half, although Tom Banks’ wretched broken arm did the hosts no favours.

Allan Ala’alatoa also had to go off with a head knock, leaving veteran James Slipper and Angus Bell on either side of the scrum.

Meanwhile, Darcy Swain’s inexplicable decision to headbutt locking opponent Jonny Hill (admittedly the latter did his part when pulling Swain’s hair and was duly yellow-carded) left the Wallabies with just under half the game to play with a man down.

World Rugby’s decision not to adopt the 20-minute red card approach used in Super Rugby grows ever more curious by the day.

Yet the men in gold did not lose their cool. Lolesio slotted two penalties in the first half, the second a crucial shot after half-time to bring his team level at 6-6. And with four more kicks in the second half he was faultless.

The two conversions from tries to Jordan Petaia and Pete Samu in particular were superb: relentless English pressure and unforgiving angles could not put him off as he crucially kept applying scoreboard pressure.

After his missed drop-goal in the Super Rugby Pacific semi-final against the Blues, one could have forgiven some doubt, but there was ice in those young veins.

His last conversion proved the match-winner due to late tries by debutants Henry Arundell and Jack van Poortvliet against a switched-off Wallabies defence (Lolesio was also yellow-carded for an attempted intercept in the dying moments of the match).

Jordan Petaia of the Wallabies attempts to break the tackle from Danny Care of England during game one of the international test match series between the Australian Wallabies and England at Optus Stadium on July 02, 2022 in Perth, Australia. (Photo by James Worsfold/Getty Images)

Jordan Petaia of the Wallabies. (Photo by James Worsfold/Getty Images)

Lolesio was enterprising in general play as well, steering the backline around and contributing to the Rennie Wallabies imprint in the second half: kicking tactically, playing in bursts off set piece, and fierce defence. Of course, he was helped by an immense effort from his teammates in the face of adversity. Debutants Cadeyrn Neville and David Porecki were enterprising in loose play and at the set piece.

Captain Michael Hooper won one crucial turnover penalty when the English were pushing hard on the Wallaby tryline. Samu Kerevi and Marika Koroibete justified their selections from overseas with barnstorming runs and in the former’s case, the surprising discovery of a huge boot.

The Brumbies front row of Slipper, Scott Sio and Folau Fainga’a also demolished the English scrum to win a penalty with around six minutes to go. And of course, they played their fan favourite: a five-metre lineout, Fainga’a at the back, and the inevitable try.

Dan McKellar must be beaming at the impact his Brumbies charges had on a game that looked for all money to be lost at half-time.

Rennie will be the first to admit the Wallabies have several issues to sort out before match 2 of the series in Brisbane.

Discipline let them down several times, allowing England pressure-relieving penalties and scrum feeds. Swain’s red mist moment had Swinton-esque vibes: can he be trusted beyond this series, or does Rennie turn to Izack Rodda, Will Skelton and Rory Arnold alongside Philip and Neville?

And the last two England tries would have infuriated the coaching team, because the Wallabies switched off after Pete Samu’s final try.

It was not a 2-point ball game, and England will now take some momentum into their preparation for the next week.

Still, there was much to admire about the heart and tenacity of this Wallabies performance. Where heads might previously have dropped there was steely resolve and a determination, at least in the second half, to win the breakdown collision, secure quick ball, and unleash their backline threats.

The propensity to take the points on offer was also pleasing. But it’s fair to say much of the praise should rightfully go to Lolesio, a young man who took a huge burden on his shoulders and did all that was asked of him. On form, he must start Test 2 even if Cooper is passed fit.

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