Coach Dave Rennie has hailed the courage and character of the Wallabies, who overcame a serious injury to Quade Cooper to post a rousing Rugby Championship win over Argentina that they dedicated to absent skipper Michael Hooper.
The Wallabies trailed by nine points at half-time in the Mendoza match and then lost playmaker Cooper to a ruptured Achilles tendon, an injury which could rule him out of next year’s Rugby World Cup even end the 34-year-old’s career.
But they piled on 31 points after the break, with centre Len Ikitau crossing for the Wallabies’ fifth try five minutes after full-time, to snare a bonus point 41-26 victory.
The Australians entered the Test without talismanic captain Hooper, who withdrew from the two-game tour the day before the match for mental health reasons and flew home.
Rennie said the team produced a stirring performance that showed respect for 121-Test veteran Hooper.
As well as the halftime deficit they turned around a costly 10-3 penalty count.
“It highlights the respect we have for Hoops (Hooper), we talked a lot about him over the last 24 hours – how do you honour a man who’s emptied the tank in every Test over the past decade – it’s by putting in a performance like that in the second half,” Rennie said.
“We talked a lot about the courage that he’s shown and we needed to show the same sort of courage on the field today.”
Stand-in skipper James Slipper said it was one of most “satisfying” Tests of his 118-game national career given the setbacks before and during the match.
“The way we fought back into the game and wrestled it back into our hands, it was a proud moment to be a part of,” the veteran prop said.
The performance of Hooper’s flanker replacement Fraser McReight, who scored his first Test try, as well as Reece Hodge, who replaced Cooper and nailed three conversions and a penalty showed the growing depth and belief in the squad.
“Losing Quade early in the second half highlights the character of this group, when you’ve got a guy like Reece Hodge who can step up and play anywhere and I reckon the guys around him stepped up as well,” Rennie said.
“We know they’re a three-six-nine (penalty) side and can hurt you that way.
“The pleasing thing was we were more clinical in the second half and played the game in the right end of the field, built pressure.
“It was a hell of a second half.”
Just after Cooper’s exit McReight was dragged across the line for his first Test try by barn-storming Test debutant Jed Holloway.
A penalty try in the 62nd minute awarded by whistle-happy Scottish referee Mike Adamson then put the visitors within two points of Argentina.
With Argentine lock Matias Alemanno yellow-carded, Hodge banged over a long-range penalty for the Wallabies to take the lead, 27-26, for the first time in the match.
They extended that in the 70th minute when hooker Folau Fainga’a, in his best performance in the gold jersey, picked up the ball off the back of a maul and charged over.
Argentina, coached by former Wallabies mentor Michael Cheika, got off to their best possible start with Pablo Matera crossing in the sixth minute and got out to a 13-3 lead.
The Wallabies countered through winger Jordan Petaia but kept the home side in the game through their sharp-shooter Emiliano Boffelli.
The Australians got on the right side of Adamson in the second half, while the Pumas own discipline fell apart as they incurred 11 second-half penalties which cruelled their cause.
The Wallabies face Argentina again next weekend in San Juan.