Rugby League: Sailor floats past to frustrate Kiwis

New Zealand 20 Australia 22

AUSTRALIA HUNG on to the crown they have held for so many years as official or unofficial world champions, but only by the narrowest of margins at the end of a game that hummed and buzzed with tension and quality.

With four minutes to play at Auckland's Ericsson Stadium, the Kiwis seemed to have the Tri-Series won and an end within sight to their decades of frustration against their neighbours. But then Brett Kimmorley ran at the New Zealand defence and Brad Fittler and Matthew Johns both handled impeccably to send Wendell Sailor in at the corner. Even then, New Zealand almost snatched it back at the death, Logan Swann getting under Henry Paul's kick and almost forcing his way through a heap of bodies to get it over the line.

Typically, there were no whinges from the Kiwis. "It wasn't a try," said Henry's brother, Robbie, gesturing with thumb and forefinger. "It was about that far off the line, but it wasn't a try. There was no obstruction in the build-up either. I'm not going to moan."

The Pauls had been one of the strengths of the Kiwis as they went so close to deposing Australia, Henry's pass and Robbie's gloriously timed run levelling the scores after the Kangaroos had taken an early lead. Even the try conceded had a touch of Kiwi flair about it, Stephen Kearney's off-load and Henry Paul's speculative pass being brilliantly picked off by Mat Rogers from a stunning 70-metre interception.

Australia, with a strong wind behind them, went ahead again when Jason Lowrie dropped the ball on the first tackle, Rogers ran at the defensive line and lovely handling from Darren Smith and Darren Lockyer released Johns. If the Great Britain side who had played earlier in the evening wondered what top-class rugby league was all about, this might have provided a clue.

Two penalties from Henry Paul, against one by Rogers, left the home side four points in arrears at the break, but a ferocious spell of pressure after half-time saw that lead doubled, when Lockyer - who had earlier spent 10 minutes in the sin-bin - linked with Matthew Gidley for Rogers to go in.

But any inferiority complex the Kiwis might have about Australia is a thing of the past. They roared back at Australia with a sustained assault that brought three penalties for Henry Paul and a sin-binning for Darren Britt as the Aussies clung on desperately - and literally. With Britt off the field, New Zealand chose to run rather than kick yet another penalty and Joe Vagana's storming run set up his cousin, Nigel, for the try that put them ahead for the first time. Henry Paul, like Lockyer before him, hit the post with his conversion attempt, a miss that would prove so very costly.

But the Kiwis had nothing to reproach themselves for; they lost by the same margin they had won by in the opening game of the series and that sums up the balance of power. Not that that was much consolation to the likes of Robbie Paul, for whom the narrow defeat brought back too many memories of domestic frustrations with Bradford.

"Pipped at the post again, like two Grand Finals; so close and so far away," he said. "I'm sick of being good enough; I want to be the best. It's a hard thing to come so close and lose."

For the Australian coach, Chris Anderson, it was "a really gutsy effort to come back after going behind for the first time so close to the end, even if it wasn't the prettiest of wins."

It showed that the Aussies remain sheer bloody murder to beat, however well you play against them. It also showed the standard Great Britain much reach if they are to beat either of these sides. Perhaps it was a good thing they were back at their hotel; on current form, they did not belong at the same stadium.

NEW ZEALAND: Barnett (Sydney City); N Vagana (Auckland), Wiki (Canberra), Talau (Canterbury), Vainikolo (Canberra); H Paul (Bradford), R Paul (Bradford); J Vagana (Auckland), Swain (Melbourne), C Smith (St George-Illawarra), Kearney (Melbourne), Rua (Melbourne), Swann (Auckland). Substitutes used: Ngamu (Huddersfield-Sheffield), Lowrie (Balmain), Cayless (Parramatta), Kidwell (Parramatta).

AUSTRALIA: Lockyer (Brisbane); Rogers (Cronulla), D Smith (Canterbury), Gidley (Newcastle), Sailor (Brisbane); Johns (Newcastle), Kimmorley (Melbourne); Stevens (Cronulla), Gower (Penrith), Britt (Canterbury), Fletcher (Sydney City), Kosef (Manly), Fittler (Sydney City). Substitutes used: J Smith (Parramatta), Girdler (Penrith), Vella (Parramatta), Timmins (St George- Illawarra).

Referee: R Smith (England).