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Aussies blow Tri Nations wide open with stirring 23-18 win

Aussies blow Tri Nations wide open with stirring 23-18 win

Australia inflicted Graham Henry’s first defeat on New Zealand and in the process blew the Tri Nations wide open with this pride-restoring win.

Those that have castigated the Tri Nations as ‘basketball rugby’ with the intensity of a powder puff will have to deal with the evidence of this year’s Tri Nations. This tournament has delivered a feast of quality rugby with a notable step up in physical intensity.

This match lived up to this development. The Wallaby forwards, having had their eyes wiped by their All Black counterparts in the waterworld that was Wellington, stepped up to this happily drier plate. Despite their fine win over the Springboks in the interim, the Australians measure their status by how they perform against New Zealand and they were under a great deal of pressure coming into this match.

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Had New Zealand won and secured a bonus point the tournament was theirs for an historic ‘three in a row’. Now all three teams are right back in it and with two home matches to come, South Africa’s Jake White will have been almost as happy as an Australian with this outcome.

Nonetheless it was a pretty inauspicious start by the Aussies. Larkham ran back the deep kick-off and a Mortlock knock-on resulted in a simple penalty to Carter after just two minutes. Further errors ensued and Australia just couldn’t get their hands on the ball and when they did they continued to make basic errors. The Blacks were playing with the confidence of a team that has won all six of their matches to date this season and further Carter penalties followed in the 13th and 17th minutes. Kees Meeuws, of all people, was showing up all round the pitch and demonstrating a surprising turn of pace and softer hands than the woman in the Fairy ad. Having skewed his second kick at goal badly, Carter did well to convert efforts three and four to build up a 9-0 lead.

But by then Australia had begun to get their hands on some ball and get some fluency to their game. Indeed they began to pressure the New Zealand lineout, through Sharpe in particular, and force them to tap with scrappy consequences. And the competition for ball on the deck was intense, with the groundhogs Waugh, and especially Smith, putting the ball carrier under serious pressure.

Larkham, now with some possession, began to throw those sweet left-handed passes of his and put some width on the Aussie game. It worked well as the potent back three of Rathbone, Latham and Tuqiri started to threaten and gain field position. Nathan Sharpe was having a big game and David Lyons was carrying ball effectively. The pendulum had swung Australia’s way and New Zealand began to concede penalties under pressure. Burke, on as a blood substitute for Mortlock, exchanged penalties with Carter to bring up 12-3 after 28 minutes, before the Aussies really started to dominate.

Sustained pressure in their 22 from efficient Australian recycling, led them to concede four kickable penalties, three of which were smartly taken by Matt Giteau. The fourth, in the shadow of the posts, was reversed after George Gregan, of all people, gave referee Kaplan some verbiage. Equalling David Campese’s Australian caps record on his 101st appearance, it was an incredible lapse by the skipper.

The Blacks trod a fine line with the sin bin, especially the twice-guilty Spencer, as the offsides became cynical and blatant. New Zealand also survived the tightest of TV Match official decisions as Tuqiri grounded the ball fractionally short after being brilliantly held up by Kees Meeuws. The sin bin did eventually catch a Black as Ali Williams saw yellow after 38 minutes for continual offside on the advice of touch judge Chris White.

As a result the halftime scoreline read 12-12, but the tougher job at the interval was Henry’s as all the momentum was with the Wallabies. His job wasn’t helped by an injury to Daniel Carter, replaced by the lively Sam Tuitoupu, resulting in the kicking duties being taken up by Carlos Spencer. He was successful after 46 minutes to restore the lead to New Zealand, but the score was quickly equalised by Giteau.

The key play of the match resulted in the only try after 48 minutes, scored by Lote Tuqiri, effective again yesterday and one of the stars of the tournament so far. The try followed good continuity deep in the Black 22, but David Lyons should have given a ball instead of driving for the line. He was just held up but a quick recycle and a feed from Cannon saw Tuqiri home wide on the left, despite a collywobble thrown in as he nearly knocked on. Still, the Wallabies had effectively taken advantage of Williams’ absence.

Giteau missed the convert but Australia were out to 20-15 and it got better when Spencer’s restart went out on the full. He had been struggling to put direction on the All Black effort and had been playing as if he could feel the shepherd’s hook around his neck. His most memorable contributions were an extraordinary punch-up with Larkham in the first half, a badly-skewed penalty miss in the second and a shocker of a restart. This was the last straw and Henry replaced him immediately with Andrew Mehrtens.

The rejuvenated Mehrtens converted a penalty four minutes later to narrow the gap to two at 20-18 Australia. In doing so, he became the first player to score more than 200 points against another international team and reminded the Aussies of past miseries inflicted on them.

Australia continued to dominate and probed out wide and in close. Fire was met with fire, however and the Blacks defended their line resolutely. Tuqiri was held up over the line again before some exceptional handling by Paul, on now for Cannon, and George Smith had the All Blacks on their knees. Eventually Burke, having fully replaced Mortlock, knocked over an inevitable penalty after 67 minutes to extend the Wallaby lead to five at 23-18.

In a tournament of dramatic late scores, it was surprising that this should be the final score. Sharpe, who had a big game in the air and taking on ball 13 times, was immediately replaced by Vickerman and Henry hauled ashore an exhausted Meeuws for Somerville.

Their were dramatic moments as the All Blacks put their shoulders in for a big last ten. Latham had a kick charged down by Holah, but was baled out by Tuqiri, and Muliaina should have passed to the supporting Chris Jack when in a threatening position in a period of now sustained and ferocious All Black pressure.

But the final whistle blew as Muliaina was blitzed in a double tackle that said much about the way Australia approached this match.

A fifth defeat from seven matches played at the Telstra Stadium for New Zealand has left Henry facing some big decisions, not the least of which is what now for the brilliant but brittle Spencer. And he must somehow square the fact that this most dynamic of teams has only managed two tries in the three matches played to date.