The Wallabies have kicked off their European rugby tour and the Michael Cheika era with a thrilling 40-36 win over a lively Barbarians outfit at Twickenham.
A crowd of almost 54,000 in London was treated to a hugely-entertaining contest featuring 11 tries, with the Wallabies needing to survive a late fightback to clinch their ninth straight win in the fixture.
The match was played in great spirit and the win finally provided some good news for Australian rugby following a month of controversy.
But while the Wallabies looked good at times in their first match since Cheika was hired to replace Ewen McKenzie, the performance also highlighted the work ahead.
With Australia trying to adapt to a new style under the NSW Waratahs coach, their defence was found wanting at times and the attack lacked cohesion – particularly in the first half.
Cheika said it was a valuable hit-out ahead of next week’s encounter with Wales, the first of four Tests against European opposition.
“I thought there were some really good patches and at other times guys looked a bit uncertain,” Cheika said.
“We need to practice and play together more at that level.
“Our defence was probably the part of the game we want to improve the most … we just need a little bit more clarity around things but that will come.”
Among the highlights for Cheika was a superb debut off the bench by rising Melbourne Rebels backrower Sean McMahon, who made a series of barnstorming runs and scored a second-half try.
McMahon went on after just 19 minutes to replace Scott Higginbotham, whose tour could be in jeopardy with a hamstring injury, and Cheika admits the youngster is now in the frame for a Test debut against Wales.
“He was outstanding,” Cheika said of McMahon.
“He’s definitely put himself right up there (for selection).”
Sam Carter, Benn Robinson, Tevita Kuridrani, Rob Horne and Bernard Foley also crossed for tries while former Wallabies winger Nick “Honey Badger” Cummins crossed late for the Barbarians.
Returning playmakers Quade Cooper and Will Genia made their first appearances for Australia this year, putting in decent 55-minute shifts, but it would seem unlikely either did enough to force their way into the starting side in Cardiff.
As expected, the Barbarians showed a willingness to experiment, thrilling the crowd with long throws, flick passes and overhead kicks.
They capitalised on an error-riddled start for Australia to score the first try through Blues winger Frank Halai in the 14th minute.
Fellow New Zealander Adam Thompson also crossed in the first half but Wallabies forwards Carter and Robinson found the stripe to give Australia a 14-12 halftime lead.
The Wallabies extended their lead six minutes after halftime through a sensational 40-metre solo try by Kuridrani before Francis Sailia hit back for the Barbarians, despite video replays showing McMahon might have grounded the ball before him.
Slade put the Barbarians ahead by a point with the only penalty of the game but Australia forged ahead through Horne, McMahon and Foley tries, the last set up by a freakish Israel Folau intercept.
South African Marnitz Boshoff followed Cummins over the line in the last five minutes but the Barbarians fell just short of their first win over Australia in almost four decades.
“I know Australia have gone through hard times and it’s good way for them to start their tour,” Barbarians New Zealand coach John Kirwan said.