Mehrtens in great escape

Australia's greatest player, bound for the English league, fails to stop the All Blacks from taking the Tri-Nations title
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The Independent Online
Australia 25

New Zealand 32

Andrew Mehrtens exorcised a malevolent rugby spirit here yesterday.

The New Zealand outside-half has carried a cruel burden for the past year. A little over 13 months ago Mehrtens missed an injury-time drop goal which would have given the All Blacks victory in the World Cup final against South Africa in Johannesburg.

That miss inevitably sent New Zealand tumbling to an unlikely extra-time defeat in Ellis Park and, inevitably, questions were asked about the Canterbury stand-off's ability to cope with the pressures of Test-match rugby. But yesterday, in no less trying circumstances, Mehrtens answered his critics as he sealed a brilliant New Zealand second-half comeback to capture the inaugural Tri-Nations title.

The All Blacks had seemed to be sliding towards defeat before Mehrtens stepped in to alter the course of an epic match. Trailing 22-9 on the hour, Mehrtens followed his captain Sean Fitzpatrick's no-nonsense instructions to attempt a long-range penalty goal. Mehrtens, who had connected with three earlier efforts, made no mistake, and four minutes later hammered another crucial kick through the uprights to give the New Zealanders unexpected hope. Matthew Burke, the Australian full-back, pushed Australia to a 10- point cushion a few moments later. But Mehrtens and the All Blacks were just beginning.

Jonah Lomu, quiet for much of the match, burst into life as he charged down the left-hand side, taking out four Wallaby defenders as he ploughed into the 22. Justin Marshall, the All Black scrum-half, latched on to the loose ball to dart in on the blind side. Mehrtens fired over the conversion to cut the Australian lead to three points.

Mehrtens was off target with an angled penalty in the 73rd minute, but another Australian infringement gave him an opportunity from two metres inside his own half five minutes from time. Mehrtens made no mistake to remove once and for all any question marks over his ability to cope in the international arena. As if to underline that, Mehrtens produced one final statement. Bursting down the right, he held the ball just long enough to give Christian Cullen the running room to drive for the line. The shaven- headed full-back was stopped short, but the centre Frank Bunce was on hand to pounce on the scraps and batter his way over the line. Mehrtens kicked the conversion, after which the referee, Jim Fleming, blew the final whistle.

New Zealand could hardly believe they had won. Neither could the Australians. The Wallabies had started the match well. A 12th-minute try by their scrum- half, George Gregan, set up by Joe Roff and Ben Tune, provided them with an early platform. When Burke charged 75 metres, almost unchallenged - including selling a superb dummy to Cullen, who was left stranded in mid- air - to score in the 35th minute, Australia seemed on course for revenge.

It was, after all, only three weeks ago that the Australians had been humbled in a record 43-6 defeat in the wind and rain of Wellington. Here, they responded magnificently and once Burke had added two second-half penalties, their 22-9 lead appeared unassailable. It was no wonder that afterwards, their captain, John Eales, found it difficult to cope with defeat. The towering line-out jumper admitted: "I don't know how we managed to lose. We did just about everything right but it still wasn't enough. New Zealand are one hell of a team."

John Hart, the All Black coach, agreed. "We have achieved the great escape but the manner of our comeback was absolutely sensational. It says a great deal about our side that we were never once tempted to hit the panic button. This team is something very special."

The All Blacks and Australia now travel to South Africa to play their final games in the Tri-Nations series against a world-champion Springbok side who are improving with each game, though they have yet to win a game in the series.

Australia: M Burke (NSW); B Tune (Queensland), J Roff (ACT), R Tombs (NSW), D. Campese (NSW); P Howard (ACT), G Gregan (ACT); R Harry (NSW), M Foley (Queensland), A Heath (NSW), J Eales (Queensland), G.Morgan (Queensland), M Brial (NSW), D Wilson (Queensland), D Manu (NSW). Replacement: T Gavin (ACT) for Morgan, 23.

New Zealand: C Cullen (Manawatu); J Wilson (Otago), F Bunce (North Harbour), W Little (North Harbour), J Lomu (Counties); A Mehrtens (Canterbury), J Marshall (Canterbury); O Brown (Auckland), S Fitzpatrick (Auckland), C Dowd (Auckland), R Brooke (Auckland), I Jones (North Harbour), J Kronfeld (Otago), M Jones (Auckland), Z Brooke (Auckland).

Referee: J Fleming (Scotland).