LONDON (AP) In a Rugby World Cup final few expected them to reach, the Wallabies produced a comeback that seemed improbable at halftime.
Rather than capitulating under the might of New Zealand, the refreshed and resilient Australians slashed the defending champions’ lead from 18 points to only four.
With 15 minutes remaining under the Twickenham floodlights in front of 80,000 fans after converted tries from David Pocock and Tevita Kuridrani, the stage was set for a thrilling finale on rugby’s greatest occasion.
“We clawed our way back into the contest,” said Australia coach Michael Cheika, “and changed the momentum.”
But – yet again – Dan Carter intervened for the All Blacks with more precision kicking from his boots.
This time, Australia was foiled by an audacious drop goal from 42 yards, rather than a penalty kick, from the game’s greatest-ever international points-scorer.
“They set that up so well,” Cheika said. “The painful part was the scrum penalty afterwards, I think that was a little bit surprising for me.”
As New Zealand continued to rack up the points – reaching 34 in the highest-scoring final in the 28 year-history of the World Cup – Australia remained stranded on 17.
The Antipodean rivals were both chasing a record third world title. Instead, the Wallabies fly home still waiting to lift the Webb Ellis Cup in the 21st century, having triumphed in Britain in 1991 (Twickenham) and 1999 (Millennium Stadium, Cardiff).
“When you look up and see you haven’t (won) that’s when it’s painful,” Cheika said. “There is not much more I could have asked them to do and we came pretty close tonight.
“We swung the momentum back our way even though the first half didn’t go our way. A bounce of the ball here or there, a call here or there, and it could have been a bit closer.”
But even reaching the title match seemed noteworthy for a team that was in the doldrums last November, when the men in green and gold lost three out of four tests in Europe at the start of Cheika’s reign.
Parachuted into the job after Ewen McKenzie’s sudden resignation, Cheika has gradually restored the team’s harmony – and consistency.
“I was just a bit surprised I was even asked to do it (the job) from sort of where I’ve come from,” said Cheika, who was never selected for the Wallabies during his playing career.
“(The final) came pretty quick for us as a group and we tried to make the best of it … I know many people didn’t expect us to, but believing has to start somewhere.”
Expectations had been raised by beating New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina to win the Rugby Championship in August. Now the mission is to chip away at New Zealand’s supremacy and catch the champions on the world stage in time for Japan in 2019.
“Every single time you play them, it’s as tough as it gets in the game,” Australia captain Stephen Moore said. “They’re a great credit to their team. They thoroughly deserve what they got today.”
And the World Cup performances of flankers Michael Hooper and Pocock underpin Cheika’s confidence for the future.
“Pocock and Hooper are both not only outstanding players but outstanding people, and that usually sets the right agenda for longevity in the game,” Cheika said.
The only sour note for Cheika was being prevented from joining his players on the field pre-match for the national anthem, “Advance Australia Fair.”
“The heart and the courage I believe that has been built in this team will last us going forward,” Cheika said. “They wanted to stay in the battle until the end, which I thought we did.”