Rugby: Fitzpatrick plays his own game

All Black captain outfoxes Wallabies to maintain unbeaten record in Tri-Nations; By Derrick Whyte in Melbourne Australia 18 New Zealand 33
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Raw courage clinched the Bledisloe Cup for New Zealand yesterday. When Sean Fitzpatrick, his right knee heavily strapped and a disguised limp to his gait, led the All Blacks on to the Melbourne Cricket Ground yesterday, few of the 90,119 fans in the grandstands expected him to last the pace of this Test match. By full-time, however, the 34-year-old had inspired his team-mates to their second win in as many games in the Tri-Nations series, retaining the Trans-Tasman trophy in the process.

Fitzpatrick left the field against South Africa during last Saturday's 35-32 win in Johannesburg, and in the seven days between Tests the All Blacks' coach John Hart rated Fitzpatrick only a 50-50 hope of playing. But Fitzpatrick's determination has never been doubted - a run of 89 Tests has been broken just once, when he stood down for the match against Japan in the 1995 World Cup - and he was duly rewarded yesterday. "It's about confidence," he said of the win. "We're developing that and we're a young team. We are thrilled to go home and have a week off."

The All Blacks, 30-13 victors in their first clash on 5 July, secured the win in a two-minute spell in the first half when they twice exploited errors from Australia's No 8 Michael Brial. Coach Greg Smith, dissatisfied with the Wallaby pack's performances against England and the All Blacks, recalled Brial for added muscle. But the New South Welshman's first Test in 1997 proved a one-half wonder, and he was replaced by Troy Coker before the break.

Brial's missed tackle on the blind-side flanker Taine Randell in the 14th minute allowed space for Frank Bunce - who scored a brace against the Boks last week - to power over. Brial lost control of the ball after the restart, and the scrum-half Justin Marshall sprinted a few metres across the halfway line before hoofing the ball downfield. Jeff Wilson, the right wing, was quickest in a 40-metre dash to the line.

Smith was clearly disappointed by his loose-forward gamble. "No-one told Brial to go out and do that, and when you play against a team like that they'll exploit that. They certainly were too good for us in the first half - and that was a result of a person making two mistakes."

A piece of Fitzpatrick gamesmanship before the break summed up the mood of the match. As he wrestled with an Australian forward behind play, John Eales ran over and gave his rival a smack in the head. The English referee Ed Morrison, a target of complaints from Australia during the week for being too familiar with the New Zealanders, awarded a penalty and, as Carlos Spencer prepared to kick the All Blacks to a 23-6 half-time lead, Fitzpatrick shared a joke with the official as the Wallaby captain looked on sourly.

Australia scored twice late through George Gregan and Jason Little, but Spencer's perfect kicking record of four penalties and three conversions for a total of 18 points, in tandem with Christian Cullen's try - his 15th in 16 Tests - with 15 minutes left kept the All Blacks in command.

Australia's cause was not helped by losing their outside-half Tim Horan at half-time with a suspected broken right thumb. Stephen Larkham, the ACT full-back, replaced him. "It's very disappointing because we've been working on a few aspects of our game," Eales said afterwards. "We seemed to fix them up a fair bit, but we weren't good enough. We need to improve ourselves for next Saturday night, and South Africa will be coming here with a week off and they'll be very keen after their narrow loss to New Zealand. We just have to get ourselves off the canvas."

The All Black coach was glowing in praise of his players after their exhausting win at altitude over South Africa and the travel involved in getting to Melbourne. "I think this team is starting to extend its boundaries in terms of performance," Hart said.

Australia: M Burke (NSW); B Tune (Queensland), J Little (Queensland), J Holbeck (ACT), J Roff (ACT); T Horan (Queensland), G Gregan (ACT); R Harry (NSW), M Foley (Queensland), A Heath (NSW), G Morgan (Queensland), J Eales (Queensland, capt), D Manu (NSW), M Brial (NSW), B Robinson (ACT). Replacements: T Coker (ACT) for Brial 36, S Larkham (ACT) for Horan 40, D Wilson (Queensland) for Robinson 65, S Payne (NSW) for Burke 77.

New Zealand: C Cullen (Manawatu); J Wilson (Otago), F Bunce (North Harbour), A Ieremia (Wellington), G Osborne (North Harbour); C Spencer (Auckland), J Marshall (Canterbury); C Dowd (Auckland), S Fitzpatrick (Auckland, capt), O Brown (Auckland), I Jones (North Harbour), R Brooke (Auckland), T Randell (Otago), Z Brooke (Auckland), J Kronfeld (Otago). Replacement: A Cashmore (Auckland) for Wilson 41.

Referee: E Morrison (Eng).