The All Blacks beat Australia 16-7 to retain the Bledisloe Cup and get off to a flier in the Tri-Nations.
Well, there was a lot at stake – revenge for the World Cup Semi-Final, the Bledisloe Cup, a good start in the Tri-Nations. It was the biggest international test of the season so far for the two form teams in world rugby.
The buildup was as spicy as an Indian kitchen with Justin Marshall and Xavier Rush upping the ante, calling the Aussies soft and Marshall looking forward to a shot at his World Cup nemesis, George Smith (starting on the bench). The shy, retiring Eddie Jones waded in with a complaint about New Zealand taking out number one defenders at the breakdown.
Both sides had shown terrific recent form, the performance of Australia in beating England so comprehensively probably being the best win of the season to date and suggesting that despite their form and home advantage, New Zealand would find this one tough against a team that as assistant coach Wayne Smith admitted ‘had the wood on us’.
Conditions at the Westpac Stadium in Wellington didn’t favour the wide-running game that New Zealand have played so beautifully and would be a real test of their new-found toughness up front. But with Keith Robinson succumbing to a back injury one of their talismans of toughness was absent. With Richie McCaw, George Gregan and Joe Roff also absent, both sides were short two marquee names.
Come kick-off though, Australia never got to grips with a muscular display by the All Blacks up front. The Blacks were winning the gainline battles all day, but while they turned possession into territory extremely well, they couldn’t retain possession long enough in the first half to convert the pressure into scores. Too often they looked to move ball into the middle and wide when an ‘up the jumper’ approach was the only sensible one in the conditions. Aggressive Aussie defence, to their credit, meant that knock-ons were made, but on occasion the ABs were taking their eye off the ball as well.
A single Daniel Carter penalty on the board at halftime was scant reward for their efforts and Australia would have been happy with the opportunity to regroup. The only other scoring opportunity was a missed Carter kick when Waugh was spotted well by Rolland having a sly stamp on a New Zealand hand.
The Blacks changed tack in the second half and kept the ball tighter in this period. Nothing changed in the territory or possession pattern, but the Blacks were spending longer periods in the Aussie 22.
But there was a little more fire to proceedings and it erupted briefly when Meealamu and Cannon exchanged punches at the beginning of the second period. Cannon looked the more culpable, but it was under provocation from Meealamu. Rolland decided on 10 minutes for both and a penalty to New Zealand that Carter duly despatched for 6-0.
All Black pressure was relentless and the dam finally burst after 60 minutes when for the first time in the match, the Blacks got really quick ball with the Aussie defence sucked in. Spencer, Rockococko and Muliaina combined well to send Howlett in for a simple finish, but the work was done up front by Rush and Collins close to the line.
That, we thought, was that as the score stretched to 13-0 under extremely difficult scoring conditions.
When Matt Giteau launched the most speculative of kicks under the AB posts, the initial reaction was ‘what a waste of ball’. But when Rockococko couldn’t hold a relatively simple catch, Stirling Mortlock couldn’t believe his luck and dived and slid home under no pressure. Game back on as the crowd went very quiet. However, that was a blip rather than a signal for a change of pattern and the Blacks went back to strangling the life out of the Aussies, aided and abetted by a truly shocking kicking performance from Stephen Larkham. Sliced touchfinders and restarts not going the distance or out on the full were spectacularly not helping his team.
So it was no surprise when the rest of the match was played out pretty much in the Australian 22 and Carter converted a late penalty to seal the deal.
The pity was that the conditions of unrelenting rain denied the rugy world a clash between two of the most exciting backlines on the planet. But that’s rugby for you. Unless you’re playing Wales away.
Minute by Minute
1 minLarkham kicks off out on the full
Latham hits good return punt off Carter grubber
Jack takes lineout
3 mins Latham takes highball well, NZ penalised for over the top
Aus make good ground in tight through Mortlock and Radike, but Larkham kicks out on full.
Harrison forces error in NZ LO
5 minsGiteau holds on in tackle but Marshall takes quickly and punts dead
Sniping break from Marshall but knocked on in the offload at pace
Sharpe questions Rolland on the takeout of defender to allow Marshall thru
ABs penalised for driving early at scrum
7 mins Blockdown sees Howlett covering well and ABs get back quickly to force penalty
Samo chips down line and Muliaina returns for halfway LO
9 mins ABs take LO agst head thru Jack
Muliaina breaks outside Mortlock, Marshall dink forces Latham to concede LO in Aus 22
12 minsMeealamu knock-on offers Aussies respite from continuing pressure
Meeuws penalised for taking scrum down against Baxter
Ball cleared to AB 10m but Aus penalised for delaying LO and again for failing to get away from ball on deck
Harrison wins key defensive LO and ball cleared to 25m
ABs lose ball in backline movement, ball flyhacked ahead but Carter drills ball back to Aus 22m.
16mPressure on Aus LO results in sloppy clearance
Spencer high ball comes off post, dotted down by Waugh, Rolland gives controversial 5m before Aussies force penalty in midfield with offensive defence
Harrison takes LO, Larkham clears to 10m out side 22
20 minsSharpe wins LO agst head from Meealamu underthrow,Larkham finds touch in NZ half
Bad knock-on by Spencer, taking eye off ball
Mortlock takes up centre, followed by Tuqiri but Aus concede pen for Lyons going over top
22minsAus penalised for playing ball in ruck, ABs punt to corner from 40m
Rolland calls captains in to get them to free ball at breakdown – having to give too many pens
NZ pressure on line but ball lost forward after Umaga tries to offload close in
25 mins ABs 6 handling errors to Aus 1
Muliana runs back kick, Blacks drive to 22m line, but Carter knocks on
ABs taking eye off ball under some pressure of defence
Meeuws pinged again for dropping bind
Waugh stamps on AB hand in ruck, first kick at goal from 10m line just under bar from Carter
Whitaker tackled into touch on 25m after Spencer chip
Jack and Meealamu combine well to drive to 5m before Spencer crosskick is easily fielded by Tuqiri for 22m dropout
31 minsABs look to move ball again, but it’s a shambles and ball is fumbled into touch by Rokococko
32 mins Rokococko gets first pass of match, makes 5m, movement ends with knock-on from Chris Jack
33 minsBill Young concedes penalty in frontof posts 25m out, Carter scores first points of Match. NZ 3 Aus 0
Aus win KO but Muliaina punt sees Larkham unable to keep ball in and Larkham concedes LO inside own half
Aus pinged for taking man out w/o ball in LO, Carter pulls pen from 40m
37 mins ABs 82% of territory
Good kick by Aus sees Muliaina and Marshall struggle to get ball away, Latham tackled into touch on AB 22
Aggressive run by Tuqiri but ball turned over and Rokococko tackled into touch on Aus 22
40 minsAussies lose punting ping pong when Latham slices into touch before halftime whistle goes.
Halftime score: New Zealand 3 Australia 0
All Blacks haven’t been under pressure in their own half once in the match, despite narrowness of the scoreline. Conditions are making it very difficult to retain possession through phases and build pressure. Aussies defending well, forcing some of the errors, but not all. NZ making errors in trying to move thru backs when it’s just not on in these conditions. Australia can’t get their hands on the ball and when they do, Larkham’s kicking hasn’t been good.
Aus move ball across line and look to recycle before Larkham clears to 10m line.
Aus win LO against head, but TO ball sees Howlett get pass and Rokococko beats Tuqiri before Meealamu loses ball forward.
ABs keep ball tight in Aus 22, Marshall organising troops before punches thrown at b/down, Meealamu and Cannon involved. Meealamu initiates but Cannon throws first clean punch before Meealamu reacts, Spencer in with a few digs as well. Rolland calls skippers and hookers, restarts with pen to ABs and Cannon and Meealamu binned.
Carter kicks resultant penalty to move score to 6-0 to New Zealand.
46 minsSpencer kicks out on full before Jonno Gibbes is replaced by Jerry Collins
Blacks pinged for too many in the LO
Knock-on by Aus sees replacements come in for hookers
ABs make ground from a clever Maling flykick in midfield
Muliani and Spencer combine to dink ball in behind but Whitaker does well to carry over under pressure from Muliaina for 5m scrum
Marshall knocks on after relentless pressure from Blacks in midfield
52 minsLatham just gets clearance away to 10m, ABs still in great position with LO
ABs concede knockon after prolonged period of pressure, Aus can only clear scrum to 22m
54 minsBoth hookers come back on after sinbinning
Good drive off LO brings ABs to 5m under posts, inside ball to Carter when Rokococko was screaming for it outside, ball ends up being knocked on as rain continues to pelt down
Rathbone replaced by Wendell Sailor
ABs have spent 17 mins in opponent’s 22 versus 1 min for Aus
Tuqiri gets to Muliaina grubber into in-goal to earn 22 drop out
Mortlock kick to touch on AB 10m line after knock-on by Jerry Collins gives TO ball to Aus
59 minsRocococko halfbreak after kicking duel sees Carter grubber forcing Whitaker to concede 5m scrum
ABs 84% territory; 65% possession
Rush and Collins go close before Spencer, Rococoko and Muliaina combine to send Howlett over on the right after quick ball.
Carter nails conversion to extend score line to 13-0.
63 minsAnother howler of a restart from Larkham doesn’t make 10m and Bill Young penalised at the ensuing scrum
Spencer kick fails to find touch but Aussies make a mess of it and turn over ball. More pressure from ABs as they recycle deep in Aus 22. Meeuws goes close before Sailor nails a tackle. ABs recycle though. Umaga drives before George Smith steals a great ball on the deck. Aussie scrum offers some relief. Lyons picks and drives before pressure on Larkham sees him slice to touch on 5m line.
Jack wins LO, ball up middle with Carter, Aussies manage to TO, Mortlock runs out of defence before Sailor drops pass into touch.
68 minsAggressive defence lets Tuqiri kick long. Blacks back first and Marshall clears effectively.
71 mins Untidy LO ball for Aus, Giteau kicks high speculatively, Rococoko drops ball on turn, perhaps mindful of the posts, and Mortlock slides in under posts to take a gift 7-pointer
Score now reads 13-7. Crowd goes very quiet.
Larkham’s kick again sliced to touch on Aus 22 after restart
Jack takes and Rush drives on but ball pops up for TO ball, Aus kick long.
76 minsAfter scrappy period Marshall kicks deep, Aus clearance only to Jack, Blacks take into 22, Collins drives on but knocks on.
After long sequence of play, Tuqiri finally puts out on Aus 22.
Giteau moves in to OH for effective clearing kick after turnover.
Aus pinged for nuimbers, Rush drives on but ball turned over. Muliaina returns loose punt to 5m from Aus line.
Paul finds Sharpe with throw and Latham finds touch on 25m.
79 minsSpencer’s kick charged down but Umaga takes on well. ABs retain possession inside 22 before Mortlock penalised for high tackle on Umaga. Perhaps a bit harsh, but Carter slots kick to set the seal on it at 16-7 as the hooter goes and New Zealand retain the Bledisloe Cup.