Australia goes down fighting in Rugby World Cup final

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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.”

Rob Harris can be followed at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris and http://www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

Guinness Six Nations: Wales equals wins record after Italy scare in Rome

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ROME (AP) — Wales equaled its all-time record for consecutive wins after overcoming a plucky Italy 26-15 in Six Nations rugby on Saturday.

Italy scored the only try of the first half to trail by 12-7 at halftime. Wales didn’t score a try until the 53rd minute and finished with only two. Italy scored a second try, too, but it wasn’t enough to prevent Wales from an 11th successive victory, tying the Welsh record set 109 years ago.

Italy extended its own record streak with a 19th straight defeat in the Six Nations since 2015. The 99-year-old tournament record became theirs outright last weekend in Edinburgh.

Wales’ winning streak started against Italy in the 2018 Six Nations.

Coach Warren Gatland made 11 changes after the fortuitous win over France in Paris last weekend, trying to build experience in a Rugby World Cup year.

That Wales finished with its least points and tries in Rome in six years didn’t worry Gatland, who was far more satisfied with starting the championship with two wins away from home before returning to Cardiff to face title rival England in two weeks.

But he warned, “If we play like that against England it could be embarrassing.”

Stand-in captain Jonathan Davies was frustrated.

“I can’t fault the boys’ effort,” he said. “That accuracy in the final quarter was probably what we lacked. But we came to a difficult place to play rugby and got the result. Italy made things tough for us.”

But a comfortable win at Stadio Olimpico was on the cards as Dan Biggar kicked Wales to a 12-point lead in the first half hour.

Then Italy struck from an attacking lineout as Dean Budd and captain Sergio Parisse surged. Sebastian Negri and David Sisi helped in getting flanker Braam Steyn over the line, and the game descended into the tight contest the Welsh feared.

Tommaso Allan converted Steyn’s try but hit the post with a penalty just before halftime. He nailed a penalty after the break to cut the deficit to two.

Wales sent on regular captain Alun Wyn Jones and finally hit back and pulled away with converted tries by Josh Adams and Owen Watkin to make the result safe with 10 minutes to go.

Italy coach Conor O’Shea rued what he believed to be a missed opportunity.

“We were very close in points for 50 minutes where we were fully in the match,” O’Shea said. “We had an opportunity in the second half but the energy at that time went in their favor.”

Wales flew down the right touch then attacked down the left, where fullback Liam Williams drew the last man to send Adams into the corner for their first try.

Wales thought it scored another 10 minutes later, but Jonathan Davies was adjudged by the TMO to have knocked on.

The second try came from a delicate chip by replacement flyhalf Gareth Anscombe for Watkin to pounce on.

Italy made the scoreline more respectable when Allan exploited a gap and teed up Edoardo Padovani into the right corner.

Right at the end, Wales flanker Thomas Young was denied a try on debut when a forward pass was caught in the buildup.

Italy already looks consigned to a fourth consecutive wooden spoon. Defending champion Ireland arrives in two weeks. But Steyn, who was a standout for Italy, believes any home match is winnable.

“The hardest challenges,” Steyn added, “are the best.”

Guinness Six Nations: England switch from underdog to favorite against France

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Praise can make you weak. Eddie Jones threw that comment at Ireland last week as a warning about living up to expectations.

Those expectations were then shattered by Jones’ England side as they smashed the Irish in Dublin to kick off the Six Nations.

Naturally, praise has been showered on England for producing its best rugby performance since 2012 when it thrashed New Zealand 38-21 at Twickenham.

Having been hailed far and wide for the remarkable all-round triumph, its England’s turn to cope with all of the pats on the back, to switch from underdog to favorite before France turns up on Sunday at Twickenham.

“By Sunday we’ll be at our best,” Jones promises.

To prove all the praise has had no effect won’t be easy, especially when England isn’t in hostile territory but back in the cozy comforts of home. Its victory has enlarged the target on its back, with four rounds to go.

“We can’t get too far ahead of ourselves,” hooker Jamie George says. “We must realize that we can’t just rest on that win, believing that because we’ve produced one good performance we’ll be winning the World Cup. We need to build on this.”

The good news — and bad news — is the next opponent is France.

France should have sunk Wales last week in the rain in Paris, but Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez missed 13 points off the tee, and Yoann Huget and Sebastian Vahaamahina gave away two converted tries. Wales, without really firing a shot, won by five points.

Instead of just replacing injured backs Wesley Fofana and Maxime Medard, and prop Uini Atonio, and showing some faith, coach Jacques Brunel has prolonged the turmoil the team can’t escape by tearing it apart and asking new combinations to hit the ground running in a stadium where France hasn’t won in 12 years.

He’s brought Geoffrey Daymourou and Mathieu Bastareaud into the centers, apparently to counter the considerable threat of Manu Tuilagi. They are the only survivors of the backline which beat England last year in Paris. But two more centers are on the wings in Gael Fickou and Damian Penaud. Meanwhile, Huget has been moved to fullback, where the wing hasn’t started for France in almost six years.

Center Romain Ntamack and lock Paul Willemse, who made their debuts against Wales, have been demoted to the reserves.

The French pack was huge and surprisingly mobile against Wales but flanker Yacouba Camara has been given his first cap since the 2018 Six Nations, and lock Felix Lambey and tighthead prop Demba Bamba will make their first starts. Bamba will be marking Mako Vunipola. Of Bamba, Brunel says, “He’s come up against a few good players.” But not Vunipola, who almost subdued the Ireland pack on his own.

If any rescuing is required, France’s reserves offer 25 caps of experience in total. Toulouse prop Dorian Aldegheri and fullback Thomas Ramos are uncapped, and four others have one cap each. Brunel says, “I expect them to bring their enthusiasm late in the game.”

England winger Chris Ashton, who has lost twice to France and never scored against them, expects the Tricolors to be desperate after blowing the Wales game.

“It will be an angry French team,” he says. “They love a reaction.”

Ashton set the Top 14 try-scoring record in his lone season with Toulon in 2016-17, and believes the Top 14 doesn’t prepare the French for test rugby.

“The Top 14 is a slow stop-start game. It’s not anywhere near (test level),” he says. “Maybe that step up shocks them in that first couple of games, but they will get up to speed very quickly.”

If praise can make you weak, then criticism can make you strong. Ashton better hope “very quickly” isn’t on Sunday.