The Wallaroos bowed 22-10 in a gritty yet erratic performance against world No.4 Canada in the rain of Whangarei today.
The Wallaroos squandered an early 10-0 lead when they battled to get any scrum or lineout consistency to throw any more scoring punches.
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The effort, the storming midfield run of debutant backrower Grace Kemp, more expert ruck work and the character shown in defense were all plusses.
The Wallaroos will fly home from this Pacific Four series tournament without a win but with the confidence they competed on equal terms with the Kiwis, Americans and Canadians for lengthy periods of each Test.
They led 10-0 against five-time World Cup-winners New Zealand, were finishing the stronger when pipped 16-14 by the USA and still had a chance of upsetting the Canadians with four minutes to play.
The Wallaroos have learned plenty about their strengths and weaknesses in this block of five Tests in seven weeks after so long without international rugby.
Back-to-back Tests against the Black Ferns in August will now be the final preparation for the side before returning to New Zealand in October-November for the Rugby World Cup.
Women’s rugby showpiece event cannot possibly be played in poorer conditions than the rain, wind or both which made it seem like the Pacific Four series was being played in a washing machine at times. Players of all sides certainly looked like they’d stepped from an interrupted wash when they left the field soaked and muddied.
That’s no excuse for the Wallaroos when both teams are given the same conditions.
Until the 21-year-old Kemp’s bumping, fending run over more than 30m, only fellow backrower Grace Hamilton had shown the same sting to her running in this tournament.
The proud First Nations rookie from the Brumbies owed her chance to a neat pass from flyhalf Arabella McKenzie.
Like every element of the Wallaroos’ game, the best of McKenzie is slick and of high World Cup worth.
Across the park, it’s the spilled passes, flat-footed shuffling of the ball to players in inferior positions and pushed offloads in the wet that flatten the whole show.
Faster ruck ball and service to give the backs more room to operate off front-foot ball will hopefully be part of the formula for the next Tests against NZ.
The Wallaroos took advantage of the best conditions of the afternoon in the opening minutes before the rain poured from the gray skies of Whangarei.
They went wide on a long ball from McKenzie. A deft kick ahead from winger Lori Cramer was turned into gold when halfback Layne Morgan chased and swooped for it.
The penalty earned enabled a kick to touch and a 5m lineout. Lock Michaela Leonard secured the throw and hooker Ashley Marsters drove over at the tail of a well-executed maul.
The 7-0 lead became 10-0 after 12 minutes when a patient series of pick-and-go efforts forced another penalty. Cramer’s sure boot added the three points.
The Wallaroos were in a grind or under consistent pressure from the point until full-time.
It was huge credit to the fight, tackling grit and ruck expertise of the Australians that they hung tough.
Marsters and skipper Shannon Parry both grabbed key steals at the ruck in the opening 35 minutes to save tense situations close to their tryline. Cramer got under prop DaLeaka Menin to prevent a dot-down as well.
Winger Jemima McCalman made a string of excellent tackles out wide. She had plenty of willing accomplices with center Cecilia Smith, the non-stop Parry and others.
The Canadian dominance with territory finally told two minutes from half-time when hooker Emily Tuttosi scored from a maul off a lineout.
Halfback Justine Pelletier scooted over from behind a 5m scrum for Canada’s first lead at 12-10 on 44 minutes.
When the Wallaroos did find a strong scrum shunt and McKenzie nailed a penalty kick to touch 5m out, the lineout was messed up when retaking the lead was possible.
Replacement lock Sera Naiqama produced a couple of strong ball carries when she came on. Kemp and halfback Iliseva Batibasaga also provided a lift from the bench.
The Wallaroos scored two of their four tries at the Pacific Four tournament from mauling drives off lineouts and another from a pick-and-go surge.
That was heavily dictated by the weather but the Wallaroos will also have to find more craft from their running, passing and deception game to make the improvements they know are within them to improve on being ranked world No.8.
“We gave away too many penalties. Our discipline let us down,” skipper Parry said of an adverse 18-8 penalty count that turned into a late team yellow card for Madi Schuck.
“We’ve taken a lot away from this tournament. We are a young group and we have learned a lot that will hold us in good stead.”
A final Canadian pick-and-go try four minutes from full-time finished off the Australians.
CANADA 22 (E Tuttosi, J Pelletier, A Ellis tries; S de Goede 2 conv, pen goal) beat
AUSTRALIA 10 (A Marsters try; L Cramer conv, pen goal)
WALLAROOS (1-15): Liz Patu, Ashley Marsters, Bridie O’Gorman, Michaela Leonard, Kaitlan Leaney, Piper Duck, Shannon Parry (c), Grace Hamilton, Layne Morgan, Arabella McKenzie, Lori Cramer, Cecilia Smith, Georgina Friedrichs, Jemima McCalman, Pauline Piliae- rasabale
RESERVATIONS: Tiarna Molloy, Madison Schuck, Eva Karpani, Sera Naiqama, Grace Kemp, Iliseva Batibasaga, Trilleen Pomare, Mahalia Murphy
CANADA (1-15): Olivia DeMerchant, Emily Tuttosi, DaLeaka Menin, Tyson Beukeboom, Abby Duguid, Gabrielle Senft, Pamphinette Buisa, Sophie de Goede, Justine Pelletier, Taylor Perry, Paige Farries, Alexandra Tessier, Sara Kaljuvee, Alysha Corrigan, Elissa Alarie
RESERVATIONS: Laura Russell, Brittany Kassil, Alex Ellis, Emma Taylor, McKinley Hunt, Sara Svoboda, Brianna Miller, Maddy Grant