KUROKI, SHIZUOKA PREF. – Australia fine-tuned preparations for a likely Rugby World Cup quarterfinal against England with a hard-fought, error-strewn 27-8 Pool D victory over Georgia on Friday.
Wales’ 27-19 win over Fiji on Wednesday had guaranteed the Wallabies a place in the last eight, with the Welsh playing minnows Uruguay on Sunday in a match that should see them book the pool winners’ spot.
In blustery conditions and heavy rain as Typhoon Hagibis headed for landfall on Japan’s east coast, Australia was forced into a real arm wrestle by the hard-hitting Georgians in the two countries’ first-ever test match.
The Wallabies dominated possession and territory early on, and successfully pitted their set piece against one of the strongest at the World Cup.
But the Georgians put in a mean defensive shift and kept in the game by seizing on a catalogue of basic handling errors by their Tier One opponents.
A tight opening quarter saw play see-saw between the two 22-meter areas, David Pocock and Jack Dempsey trading tough tackles with back-row rivals Mamuka Gorgodze and Beka Gorgadze.
Veteran center Davit Kacharava, extending the Georgian test cap record to 119, took it one step too far, however, miraculously escaping a yellow card from French referee Pascal Gauzere after crashing his elbow into the face of a prone Kurtley Beale.
The fleet-footed fullback received medical attention before leaving the pitch for a head injury assessment, never to return to the paddock at Shizuoka’s Ecopa Stadium.
The Georgians repelled wave after wave of attack, notching up almost 80 tackles in the first 20 minutes.
But an initial break by Matt Toomua set up another Wallaby attacking platform and Georgia eventually wilted, scrum-half Nic White burrowing past Mikheil Nariashvili from close range for a try Toomua converted.
No 8 Isi Naisarani spilled the steepling restart to hand Georgia the advantage, Soso Matiashvili booting a penalty after a high Tolu Latu tackle as the ball was recycled in midfield.
White and Toomua were key cogs as Australia continued to launch a series of forays from rucktime, but Georgia’s defense continued to hold firm.
Five minutes before halftime, Naisarani was rightly yellow-carded for a high tackle into the face of Giorgi Nemsadze, but it was Australia who instead got on the scoreboard next through Toomua’s second penalty.
After making a whopping 128 tackles in the first half, Georgia, which opened its campaign with a 43-14 defeat by Wales before beating Uruguay 33-7 and then going down 45-10 to Fiji, was going to tire at some stage.
But poor Australian handling meant the men in gold were never quite able to take the game by the scruff of its neck.
A moment of jinking brilliance from Fiji-born winger Marika Koroibete, who played for Fiji at the 2013 Rugby League World Cup and swapped codes in 2016, broke the deadlock.
Picking up a loose pass on his left wing, the bearded back flew past two defenders and cut back inside opposite number Alexander Todua for an excellent individual try Toomua converted.
Against the run of play, Todua sent the largely pro-Georgia crowd wild, however, after he ran in his own try with nine minutes to play after a break by replacement hooker Jaba Bregvadze.
There were late consolation tries for Dempsey and Will Genia to put some gloss on the scoreline and give coach Michael Cheika plenty to ponder in the week ahead.