The prized scalp of the All Blacks, not to mention the Bledisloe Cup and Tri- Nations title, may have slipped tantalisingly through their fingers, just as try-scoring chances were squandered. But there was no mistaking the message from this Test match of pounding physicality here in Brisbane on Saturday. Australian rugby is making significant progress as another World Cup looms.
It is less than 12 months since the Wallabies' disastrous tour of Britain and the subsequent sacking of their coach, Eddie Jones. Yet under the new coaching regime of John Connolly they have shown real progress, beating England (twice), Ireland and South Africa.
Saturday's immense confrontation was further proof of that. This should have been another notch in the Australians' gunbelt. They dominated for long periods but could not take the few scoring chances they carved out. New Zealand's defence, allied to the Wallabies' errors at crucial moments, somehow ensured the visitors survived.
Australia remain the only country to have won the World Cup twice and, as with all things, the timing of their approach to next year's tournament in France will be key. Certainly, they look well on track.
"This was a real battle and in those close games you need a bit of luck to get away with it," Connolly said. "It was a game we could have won, but we didn't take our chances. But I was pretty proud of the effort."
Graham Henry, the New Zealand coach, rightly praised his captain, Richie McCaw, for an outstanding defensive display. But Henry must have been alarmed at the collapse of his line-out in the second half and the team's failure to get on to the front foot for anything other than brief spells. "We dug pretty deep because we had to," McCaw said. "Half the time we didn't have the ball."
The Wallaby captain, George Gregan, looked ahead to Saturday's Test against South Africa in Sydney. "We are gutted we lost the game but we can't do anything about it now, we have to move on," he said. "Physically, the hard thing will be to raise ourselves for next week. But we have to. We didn't take our opportunities here and the execution let us down."
In the context of transtasman bragging rights, You could understand the Australians' enormous frustration. True, they managed only three Stirling Mortlock penalties against Joe Rokocoko's early try, plus a conversion, penalty and drop goal by Daniel Carter. But it was not the All Blacks who impressed the 52,000 crowd in an offensive sense. Their defence was world-class but they looked ordinary going forwards.
The race for France 2007 gathers pace intriguingly.
Australia: Penalties Mortlock 3. New Zealand: Try Rokocoko; Conversion Carter; Penalty Carter; Drop Goal Carter.
Australia: C Latham; M Gerrard (M Rogers, 75), S Mortlock, M Giteau, L Tuqiri (C Rathbone, 74); S Larkham, G Gregan (capt) (S Cordingley, 73); G Holmes, J Paul (T McIsaac, 61), R Blake (G Shepherdson, 77), N Sharpe, D Vickerman, R Elsom (P Waugh, 61), G Smith, S Fava (M Chisholm, 61).
New Zealand: L MacDonald; R Gear, M Muliaina, A Mauger, J Rokocoko; D Carter, B Kelleher (J Cowan, 75); A Woodcock (G Somerville, 68), K Mealamu (A Hore, 75), C Hayman, C Jack, A Williams (J Eaton, 74), J Collins (C Masoe, 62), R McCaw (capt), R So'oialo.
Referee: A Rolland (Ireland).Reuse content