SYDNEY, Australia — Ireland won a rugby test series in Australia for the first time in 39 years after holding off the Wallabies 20-16 in the third and final test on Saturday.
The Irish won the series 2-1 to finish a season in which it also won the Six Nations Grand Slam.
After both teams scored their only tries after halftime, Ireland led by one point from the 56th minute.
The Wallabies came at Ireland in wave after wave of attacks, only to be repelled each time.
When the Irish broke into Australia territory with two minutes to go, Wallabies replacement hooker Tolu Latu was penalized for not releasing and Sexton kicked his fifth penalty goal for what appeared to be the series clincher.
But there were several controversial decisions by French referee Pascal Gauzere, including the match-ender.
The Wallabies, needing a try to win, regained the kick restart. With space out wide, they spread the ball to the right, but Bernard Foley’s offload failed to find his target and went into touch.
Appeals for a deliberate knockdown by Ireland winger Jacob Stockdale saw Gauzere send the play to the television match official — Australian George Ayoub — who after several minutes deemed the video inconclusive, and the match ended.
“Some things didn’t go for us. You need a few things to go for you in a game,” Australia coach Michael Cheika said. “It could have gone either way. It was pretty tight. It was an electric atmosphere.”
The Irish ended up making 113 tackles, to Australia’s 94.
“A heck of a lot of it tonight was about character,” Ireland coach Joe Schmidt said.
“The Wallabies came back in waves. Credit to the guys, young Jordan Larmour, Jordi Murphy, Tadhg Beirne, those guys having to come in to what was a real furnace and they came out the other side. Let’s hope that furnace develops the diamonds we need.”
Flanker CJ Stander scored Ireland’s only try in the 45th. Winger Marika Koroibete replied with Australia’s only five-pointer shortly after to cut Ireland’s lead to a point in what was already a thrilling finale before a ground-record 44,085 fans at Sydney Football Stadium.
Both sides played most of the match without their captains after Australia’s Michael Hooper sustained a hamstring injury in the 16th and Ireland’s Peter O’Mahony left concussed in the 30th.
An early Sexton penalty goal gave Ireland a 3-0 start. But with Kurtley Beale controlling field position with clever tactical kicking and David Pocock dominant at the breakdown, the Wallabies nudged ahead 6-3 with two Foley penalties.
When Hooper limped off, the weight of possession and territory shifted in Ireland’s favour.
Despite being a man down after Stockdale was yellow-carded for an elbow to Nick Phipps’ throat, Ireland regained the lead after two more Sexton penalties.
Then Wallabies fullback Israel Folau was sent to the sin bin.
The TMO said Folau unnecessarily “placed” his hand on O’Mahony during an aerial challenge, resulting in the Ireland captain landing awkwardly on his head.
In a tight series, both teams scored a total of 55 points.
The Wallabies took the opener 18-9, and Ireland won the second test 26-21 for its first win in Australia since 1979.