Melvyn Jaminet booted seven penalties as a beefed-up France stunned the Wallabies 28-26 to post their first win on Australian soil in more than 30 years Tuesday and keep the three-Test series alive.
Fabien Galthie’s depleted but resolute Les Bleus, boasting a new heavyweight pack, stamped their mark on the game early and went to the break with a 16-13 lead.
Despite a fightback from Australia, they clung on at Melbourne’s AAMI Park to clock their first victory Down Under since 1990 in Sydney, when they came out 28-19.
It was a battling effort from the French, who were stung by a painful last-gasp 23-21 defeat in the opening Test at Brisbane.
The defeat has piled pressure on Australian coach Dave Rennie ahead of the decider in just four days’ time.
Rennie had demanded his team cut out the mistakes that marred their game last week, but they gave away far too many penalties, with Jaminet nailing seven plus a conversion to go with Damian Penaud’s try.
Jake Gordon and Michael Hooper both crossed for Australia and Noah Lolesio slotted four penalties, but it was not enough.
“I don’t have the words but I’m really proud of what we have done tonight,” said France skipper Anthony Jelonch.
“We managed to do what we didn’t do last week. That was a very strong Australian team that we fought against tonight and we are proud of what we have done.”
Disappointed Wallabies captain Hooper said they had plenty to review.
“There are a lot of disappointing things there and we had them under a lot of pressure but we released the pressure on the opposition,” he said. “We can be better in that zone.”
With three Tests in 11 days and after spending 14 days in quarantine, Galthie reshuffled his forwards, with giant Castres prop Wilfrid Hounkpatin and Stade Francais lock Pierre-Henri Azagoh winning their first caps.
They were joined by Cameron Woki and Ibrahim Diallo in the back row with Bordeaux-Begles lock Cyril Cazeaux also called up to form a new second-row combination with Azagoh, a powerhouse pack that caused problems.
Stung by defeat last week, they opened the scoring on a cool Melbourne night, with Jaminet drilling a long-range penalty on two minutes after Rob Valetini missed a simple clean out.
The Wallabies were fired up and thought they had the opening try when Matt To’omua offloaded to star winger Marika Koroibete who weaved through the splintered defence in an electric run.
But a replay showed a knock on and it was disallowed, with Jaminet rubbing salt in their wounds with another penalty to move France 6-0 in front.
Australia proved dangerous on the attack and Koroibete was denied again, this time by a forward pass, but they were playing advantage and Lolesio got them off the mark with a simple penalty kick.
France, though, stormed back, turning over the ball then spreading it wide for Penaud to exchange passes with Azagoh before dotting down.
Lolesio and Jaminet traded penalties for 16-6 before Australia finally got their breakthrough.
Big prop Taniela Tupou acted as scrum half to pluck the ball from a ruck and spin it wide to Gordon for a straightforward try, with Lolesio adding the extras to take them to the break 16-13 behind.
Lolesio nailed another penalty soon after the restart to level the scores, but Jaminet was his equal with three more pinpoint kicks.
Hooper set up a tense finish after Tom Banks found a hole and looped a pass to replacement winger Andrew Kellaway, who put his captain over in the left corner.
And when Lolesio converted a pressure penalty from 40 metres with five minutes left, Australia thought they’d done enough for a 26-25 win — only for a scrum penalty to be awarded to France with three minutes left, with hero Jaminet making no mistake.