Australia edged past Scotland in a pulsating encounter at Twickenham to reach the 2015 RWC semis, with Argentina joining them after dispensing of Ireland in Cardiff.
Quarter-final results: Australia 35-34 Scotland / Ireland 20-43 Argentina
A controversial late penalty proved decisive as Australia edged past an inspired Scotland to book their place in the Rugby World Cup semi-finals after an epic encounter at Twickenham.
The Wallabies will play Argentina in that semi-final next Sunday after the Pumas put in an outstanding performance to defeat Ireland, meaning the men in green are still yet to reach a RWC semi, and meaning no northern hemisphere teams will play in the semis for the first time in RWC history.
Remarkably it was Scotland who came closest to making sure Europe would have some representation in the semis, having gone into their quarter-final against Australia as overwhelming underdogs, and were only moments away from causing one of the greatest upsets in the tournament’s history.
The defeat was all the more gutting for Scotland as they felt the final penalty decision against them was the wrong call. A botched line-out saw the ball bounce and bobble around, at which point the referee penalised prop Willem Nel for being offside, although replays showed it was not a cut-and-dry case. Australian fly-half Bernard Foley kicked the necessary three points to put Australia in front with less than a minute to go, from which they were able to hang on for a nerve-shredding win.
The Wallabies had arguably been the form team in the pool-stage, having dispensed of England and Wales to top their pool, and they were expected to have little trouble against a Scotland side that had finished bottom of this season’s Six Nations championship, and had only just squeaked out of their pool.
They certainly couldn’t have had a better start, with Adam Ashley-Cooper scoring in the corner to give the Aussies a 5-0 lead in ten minutes, but Scotland hit back with a try of their own through Peter Horne, sandwiched in between two penalties from Greig Laidlaw, giving Scotland a 13-5 lead midway through the half.
Despite Scotland’s impressive showing, Australia were still dangerous with ball in hand, and they scored their second try after a slick passing move allowed Drew Mitchell to cross for his team’s second try, narrowing the gap to three points. Laidlaw extended that lead for Scotland before Australia scored third try at the end of the half, with Stuart Hooper touching down after a rolling maul. The missed conversion meant Scotland held a 16-15 lead at the break.
The Scots were hit by the first controversial decision of the second half when Sean Maitland was sin-binned after being adjudged to have deliberately knocked-on two minutes in, and Australia immediately made the most of it when Mitchell touched down in the corner for his second try.
An exchange of penalties took the score to 25-19 in Australia’s favour, but Scotland were not giving in, and in the 59th minute they scored their second try after a clearing kick was charged down, allowing Tommy Seymour to score in the corner, although the missed conversion meant they remained a point behind.
Australia hit back shortly afterwards with their fifth try through Tevita Kuridrani, making the score 32-24 to the men in gold, but Scotland came back again, first through another penalty from Laidlaw, before a wayward Australian pass was intercepted by Mark Bennett, who gleefully ran home to score his side’s third try in the 74th minute. The conversion put Scotland 34-32 in front, at which point it the unthinkable now seemed possible.
Fortune however did not favour them when it mattered most. The penalty situation could have been avoided if Scotland had taken their own line-out cleanly, but they will still be bitterly aggrieved that the decision went against them. Amongst a crowd of players and a bouncing ball, referee Craig Joubert ruled Scottish prop Nel to be offside, although replays showed the ball may have come to him off an Australian hand. Foley dutifully converted to break Scottish hearts.
The debate over that decision will inevitably rumble on over the coming days and weeks, and Australia will know they were a little fortunate to win, but it hopefully won’t overshadow what was one of the all-time great RWC matches, and Scotland can be justifiably proud of their performance, even if they came up agonisingly short.
Scotland’s defeat means there will be no northern hemisphere teams in the semi-finals for the first time in RWC history after Ireland were crushed by a hugely impressive Argentina side earlier on Sunday in Cardiff.
The Pumas came tearing out of the blocks, with superb early tries from Matias Morini and Juan Imhoff helping them into a 17-0 lead within fifteen minutes.
Ireland had not been helped before the match by the absences of Paul O’Connell, Jonathan Sexton, Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien through a mixture of injury and suspension, but they managed to haul themselves back into the match thanks to two tries from Luke Fitzgerald either side of half-time, and by the hour mark they trailed 23-20.
A missed penalty from Ian Madigan cost them the chance to draw level, after which the Pumas took control. A penalty from Nicolas Sanchez extended their lead before Joaquin Tuculet impressively touched down in the corner despite the attentions of several Irish defenders. The conversion made the score 33-20 with ten minutes remaining, essentially sealing the win for Argentina.
There was still time for the Pumas to hammer home the advantage, which they did after Imhoff ran clear of the tiring Irish defence to score his second try, with another penalty from Sanchez completing the win for Argentina.
It means Ireland have once again failed to make a RWC semi-final, but they were up against an Argentine side firing on all cylinders, and on this performance the South Americans will be confident they can turn over Australia in next week’s semi, even if the Wallabies will start as favourites.