New Zealand have won the opening match of the 2009 Tri-Nations, struggling past Australia 22-16 in Auckland on Saturday.
Having trailed 13-10 at half-time, the All Blacks utilised the stiff breeze at their backs to full advantage in the second half and played the game firmly in Australia's half. Three penalties from the boot of Stephen Donald did the trick as Australia failed to find away through the All Black defence and the men in yellow made far too many infringements.
Australia will look at it as one that got away. Stirling Mortlock was candid in his on-pitch post-match interview that his side's discipline let them down and it was hard to argue with him. There were 12 penalties conceded in all, far too many at this level, and the turnover count will be gruesome reading for Robbie Deans when it arrives.
Then there were the first half errors that cost the Wallabies precious points. Berrick Barnes, having scored one wonderful try himself already, utterly ruined what was effectively a five on two overlap through a mixture of indecision and poor execution under pressure. All he needed to do was draw and pass. He was not the only guilty party when it came to decision-making though.
In the other camp, New Zealand will need to up their game before travelling to South Africa to face the Boks. The men in black missed 19 tackles in all, also losing four of their own throws at the line-out. Excellent work in the rucks was often undone by a lack of cohesion in the half-backs and only when Piri Weepu took a firm hold of the game at scrum-half did the All Blacks find their shape.
Tactically, Australia came with a high-risk policy of committing as few people as possible to the rucks. It worked to an extent - certainly they played all the rugby in the opening half-hour - but the Wallabies have to be prepared for opponents to counter it physically. The strategy only works if the service from the base of the scrum is crisp and zippy. Today it was not and the All Blacks were able to pile in the numbers and win those turnovers as a result.
But after 25 minutes you would have been a fool to predict a New Zealand win. Australia led 13-3, a scoreline which flattered New Zealand. The Wallabies did all the attacking, moving the ball ably and sweetly with Matt Giteau and Barnes alternating at fly-half to direct the traffic.
After five minutes, Barnes took a ball on the short side at pace and sliced through, beating off two weak covering tackles to get to the line for a super opening score which Giteau converted.
When Giteau landed a penalty four minutes later to make it 10-0, there seemed already to be little way back for the hosts, who just could not keep pace with the Wallaby movement.
Yet the Wallaby scrum provided a point of weakness for the All Blacks to concentrate on, with Al Baxter given a rough ride both by Tony Woodcock and referee Craig Joubert. It was a little chink of armour the All Blacks used well. Stephen Donald missed a chance from the tee after Baxter had been penalised once, he made no mistake five minutes later after Mortlock had been caused offside at a high kick.
The match turning point could well have been Barnes' missed opportunity. Donald had a kick charged down from a line-out, a charge-down with more than a whiff of offside about it.
Giteau did wonderfully to regather and pop a pass out, almost while sliding across the turf on his belly. Barnes took the ball at pace and had Mortlock and Smith coming close at straight angles, Horwill inside him and Drew Mitchell out wide to pass to.
Too many options? Maybe, but at this level you have to make a decision. Barnes dummied a switch with Mortlock which Muliaina read well. The full-back caught Barnes, whose offload to the onrushing Smith was too late, too hard, too high and knocked on. Giteau's penalty a minute later for hands in the ruck did nothing to ease the sense that a huge opportunity to take a match-winning lead had been blown; there's a world of difference between 13-3 and 17-3.
On 25 minutes, the All Blacks finally stitched together a movement off a line-out and it yielded a try for Richie McCaw. Sitiveni Sivivatu and Rodney So'oialo - both of whom stood out as workhorses all night - combined to make ground in midfield, then after a few more phases Conrad Smith broke the line and offloaded inside to McCaw for a score through a gap where a back-row should have been covering.
Australia's attack kept plugging away with some ever more creative formations, not least the move which had five players as a running screen in front of Giteau standing deep, but couldn't find a way through to extend the lead to the extent that it should have been with that wind at their backs. Indeed, had Mitchell not batted down the pass from Donald's clean break, Australia could have been behind at the break.
The second half began with a flurry of penalties, two to New Zealand and one to the Wallabies, tying the scores at 16-apiece. But with Weepu on for Cowan, New Zealand found an extra measure of control, crucial to be able to utilise that wind properly and pin Australia back.
It became an arm-wrestle, which suited New Zealand far more. On the hour, they took the lead again after a dreadful pass from Burgess saw Giteau's kick charged down. Three phases later, George Smith was fortunate not to be yellow-carded for the hand that took the ball out of Weepu's hands at the ruck, but Donald's penalty was punishment enough.
Australia had another gilt-edged chance to launch a line-threatening attack after Kieran Read dropped a high ball in his own 22, but the ball was turned over at second phase, once again with the Wallabies failing to commit enough people to secure possession. It was turned over and hoofed a mile downfield.
Donald landed another with eight minutes to go, as Australia upped their desperation levels, to seal the game.
Man of the match: Hard work was the order of the day in this win and none worked harder than Jerome Kaino.
Moment of the match: It has to be the missed chance to go two tries ahead from Australia in the first half. They could have been out of sight if that had been run home.
Villain of the match: So clean it was almost sanitised! No award.
For New Zealand:
Pens: Donald 5
Pens: Giteau 3
New Zealand: 15 Mils Muliaina, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Sitiveni Sivivatu, 10 Stephen Donald, 9 Jimmy Cowan, 8 Rodney So'oialo, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Isaac Ross, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Neemia Tialata, 2 Andrew Hore, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Owen Franks, 18 Jason Eaton, 19 Kieran Read, 20 Piri Weepu, 21 Luke McAlister, 22 Josevata Rokocoko.
Australia: 15 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 14 Lachie Turner, 13 Stirling Mortlock (c), 12 Berrick Barnes, 11 Drew Mitchell, 10 Matt Giteau, 9 Luke Burgess, 8 Wycliff Palu, 7 George Smith, 6 Richard Brown, 5 Nathan Sharpe, 4 James Horwill, 3 Al Baxter, 2 Stephen Moore, 1 Benn Robinson.
Replacements: 16 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 17 Ben Alexander, 18 Dean Mumm, 19 Phil Waugh, 20 David Pocock, 21 Will Genia, 22 James O'Connor.
Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Marius Jonker (South Africa), Cobus Wessels (South Africa)
TMO: Vinny Munro (New Zealand)