A late penalty from Dan Carter – as a result of a pinpoint territorial kick – gave New Zealand a win and the Bledisloe Cup on Saturday.
A late penalty from Dan Carter – as a result of a pinpoint territorial kick – gave New Zealand a win and the Bledisloe Cup on Saturday after a 19-18 win over Australia in Sydney.
For Australia, the defeat ends their competitive aspirations for another year. They came up just short under the pressure in the end, unable to find the inspiration necessary to close the game out, which has been a theme of their play under Robbie Deans. It's been an anti-climactic time, full of improvement but without project completion.
Signs are now there of mental fatigue, the sort that comes from losing so many close matches that you end up not believing you can win. It's yet possible Australia could go the course of this tournament without winning a game, which would not befit a team with its undoubted talents, but until they find a way of controlling the game better they will continue to fall short. At 15-6 ahead with 25 minutes to go, this game was there for the taking.
New Zealand may have got their blade back. Australia were not shredded by any means, but the control of the breakdown and contact situation the All Blacks exerted in the second bodes well for the potentially decisive clash against the all-bullying Boks in Waikato on September 12. It was a step up from the disaster of Durban.
Dan Carter's return helped things as he gave a lesson to Stephen Donald in the art of kicking consistency from the hand. Sitiveni Sivivatu counter-attacked superbly. But the real work was done by the forwards, whose support and ferocity were outstanding. Each and every breakdown was dominated by black shirts, illegally too often in the first half, physically far too well in the second.
In contrast to Carter and co. Australia's kicking was distinctly average. It did not help to lose Berrick Barnes and James O'Connor, but there were too many loose kicks and too many to silly places. With Sivivatu running so well, the last place you'd want to kick would be down his throat, but there it went three or four times in the second half. Small details, but it made a huge difference.
However gripping it ended up being, the first half was a bit of a non-event. Neither side strung much together, while Jonathan Kaplan's stringency at the rucks would eventually open the game up but ensured that the first half was interrupted by no fewer than 15 penalties.
Australia, publicly instructed to cut down their penalty count, fell foul of Kaplan's whistle twice in the first two minutes. Rocky Elsom, back playing for the first time in three months, tackled Richie McCaw in the air for the first, Matt Giteau was a little unfortunate to be deemed offside from a knock-on for the second. Carter stepped up to give New Zealand the lead.
Giteau equalised and then gave the lead back to Australia, with the All Blacks twice penalised for hands in the ruck – once extremely dubiously – and once for not rolling away as Australia found some rhythm with the ball in hand.
New Zealand fought back, once again finding weakness in the Australian scrum, for which Al Baxter swiftly paid the price with a first-half substitution. Fury was etched all over his face as he slumped onto the bench and spewed forth expletives, but he can't have too many complaints, he was fundamentally undone by Tony Woodcock.
The hands began to do the talking for the All Blacks too, not so much with the ball going wide but with keeping the ball alive. It eventually yielded space for Luke McAlister out on the left, but Giteau covered the attempt at a grubber and pounce finish.
Then the visitors blotted the copybook with ten minutes of bizarre slackness in both mind and body. A plethora of handling errors ruined rhythm, four penalties were given away, including one for dissent that gave Giteau the chance to make it 9-3.
Right on the half-time whistle came a moment which could well be one that Australians will look at as pivotal. Berrick Barnes made a break and Nathan Sharpe took the ball on, stopped just short of the line. With the defence scrambling, Jimmy Cowan killed the ball about as cynically as could be and was penalised. But there was a clear case for a yellow card, particularly with the ongoing infringements by the All Blacks mounting and the game might have taken a very different course had New Zealand begun the second half both 12-3 down – Giteau landed the penalty – and a man down.
As it was, Australia were a man down within moments of the second half starting, when Richard Brown upended Owen Franks. Carter missed that penalty, but nailed one a minute later for a stray hand in a ruck, then watched on as his forwards committed the same offence and allowed Giteau to make it 15-6.
From then on, the All Blacks took control. With Brown off, the forwards attacked the fringes and found plenty of change as Australia ran out of tacklers. Cowan had a try disallowed for a technical obstruction by Jerome Kaino, a marginal call. Carter found his target from the tee to make it 15-9. New Zealand's forwards kept up the pressure and as first O'Connor and then Barnes disappeared to injury, Australia's answers to Carter's territorial control dried up.
The game opened up, with Joe Rokocoko making a mess of an overlap after seizing on the confusion in Australia's defence by a wicked kick bounce. Peter Hynes was sent away on an overlap, but opted to kick ahead rather than look inside to where Adam Ashley-Cooper was in space.
But New Zealand found the breakthrough, with Kieran Read – highly impressive at eight – tearing onto loose ball at speed and handing to Sivivatu, whose pace created enough room for Ma'a Nonu to loop outside and score in the corner. Carter landed a fine touchline conversion to make it 16-15.
Australia have struggled in situations like this in the past, but this time they hit right back, earning a penalty by the posts with some good rucking and enabling Giteau to give them back the lead.
But a terrific kick by Carter into the corner and some fatal hesitancy from Lachie Turner and Drew Mitchell saw the latter hold onto the ball too long in a tackle and Carter stepped up to stroke the winner home.
Robbie Deans quietly summed up the mood around the stadium immediately after the match saying: “We came up short” and pausing for a good seven seconds before adding: “again.”
Man of the match: the New Zealand pack takes a multiple award for its work – it's tough to single one out. But the contribution of Sitiveni Sivivatu was inestimable to the team's threat.
Moment of the match: Tries are harder to come by these days (but all the more thrilling because of it), but the key moment in that try was a no-look scoring pass from Sivivatu to Nonu.
Pens: Giteau 6
For New Zealand:
Pens: Carter 4
Yellow card: Brown, 43, Australia, dangerous tackle
Australia: 15 James