Defiant Eales seals victory with final kick

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The Independent Online

Three weeks after Jonah Lomu's late try won what is now known in the southern hemisphere as "The Great Test" in Sydney, the Australian captain John Eales capped another compelling Bledisloe Cup battle yesterday with a match-winning penalty five minutes into injury-time to steal a dramatic Tri-Nations victory for the world champions in Wellington.

Three weeks after Jonah Lomu's late try won what is now known in the southern hemisphere as "The Great Test" in Sydney, the Australian captain John Eales capped another compelling Bledisloe Cup battle yesterday with a match-winning penalty five minutes into injury-time to steal a dramatic Tri-Nations victory for the world champions in Wellington.

Amid almost unbearable tension at the new WestpacTrust Stadium, the Wallabies' multi-talented leader displayed exceptional composure to blot out the whistles and jeers of a fervent home crowd and slot the clinching kick. Eales raised his hands in triumph and was mobbed by jubilant team-mates as the South African referee, Jonathan Kaplin, signalled the end of the match and left New Zealand wondering how they had contrived to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Earlier, in an opening spell reminiscent of the Sydney extravaganza but this time with the roles reversed, Wayne Smith's side had recovered from an Australian blitz and a 12-0 deficit to lead 20-18 at half-time, and they stayed in front right until Eales' final salvo.

If there was much to admire about the resilience and tenacity of the Australians, then the All Blacks will have nightmares about the self-inflicted nature of this defeat, their vulnerability under pressure again being apparent in the final tension-racked minutes. Already deep into added time, and with the advantage of a scrum inside the Wallabies' 22, their task was simply: to retain possession while the clock ticked down. But Christian Cullen, who had earlier equalled Jeff Wilson's All Blacks' Test try-scoring record of 39 with the second of his two first-half touchdowns, chose a kick to the right corner when keeping the ball in hand was imperative. Moments later, the Australian stand-off Stephen Larkham, sensing time running out, kicked to touch in All Blacks' territory where the potent Wallaby jumpers could again test the nerve of a suspect New Zealand line-out.

Sure enough, the replacement hooker Mark Hammett, perhaps conscious of the threat posed by Eales and David Giffin in the middle, made a complete hash of an attempted quick throw to the front and the ball squirted out on the Australian side. From the resultant ruck, Kaplin spotted a hand on the wrong side. As the first-choice kicker Stirling Mortlock had departed with cramp, Eales assumed responsibility for the all-or-nothing attempt, his first of the afternoon.

If the late drama was the culmination of an increasingly fraught second half where neither side found a decisive cutting edge in attack, the opening half-hour was riveting fare. As at Stadium Australia, the first try arrived with barely two minutes on the clock. This time it was the Wallabies who were quickly into their stride, their centre Daniel Herbert breaching the New Zealand defence on halfway before releasing Mortlock, who had the strength to evade Tana Umaga's tackle and stretch for the line before converting his own try.

The Wallabies were far more incisive and cohesive going forward early on, and after Chris Latham narrowly failed to collect his own kick ahead and Mortlock missed a penalty, they deservedly claimed a second try after 16 minutes when Toutai Kefu created space for Joe Roff to burst through. Astonishingly, with Australia in complete command, the All Blacks first reduced the deficit and then edged in front within eight minutes courtesy of two high- quality tries. Umaga was instrumental in both with damaging thrusts off his right wing while the No 8 Ron Cribb produced a beautifully weighted kick that Cullen collected for his opener in the right corner. Then, in the 24th minute, a brilliantly crafted move involving Lomu and Umaga saw the latter make the decisive incision before sending Cullen in for his second.

Andrew Mehrtens converted both and made history before the interval when the first of two successful penalties took him past Grant Fox's record All Blacks' points tally of 645. The second - with the last kick of the half - gave the hosts a narrow lead after Mortlock had also succeeded with two three-pointers. Mehrtens added another on the hour to ease New Zealand 23-18 ahead, but Mortlock replied instantly, ensuring a nail-biting final quarter as both sides sought the knock-out blow. Latham might have delivered it but for a loose pass to Ben Tune while Cullen was downed by Mortlock with the line in his sights. With three minutes remaining, Mortlock was just wide with a long-range penalty.

Following his departure, and that fatal New Zealand indiscretion, it was left to Eales to exact punishment and seize the day. In doing so, the Wallabies captain ensured the Bledisloe Cup would remain in Australia for another year (with one win apiece, the holders retain the trophy) while maintaining the world champions' hopes of adding a hitherto elusive Tri-Nations title to their mounting list of achievements.

New Zealand: C Cullen; T Umaga, A Ieremia (all Wellington), P Alatini (Otago), J Lomu (Wellington); A Mehrtens, J Marshall (both Canterbury); C Hoeft, A Oliver, K Meeuws (all Otago), T Blackadder (capt), N Maxwell (both Canterbury), T Randell, J Kronfeld (both Otago), R Cribb (North Harbour). Replacements: R Thorne (Canterbury) for Kronfeld, 54; T Brown (Otago) for Mehrtens, 64; B Kelleher (Otago) for Marshall, 67; C Dowd (Auckland) for Hoeft, 70; M Hammett (Canterbury) for Oliver, 73.

Australia: C Latham (Queensland); S Mortlock (ACT), D Herbert (Queensland), J Little (NSW), J Roff; S Larkham, G Gregan (all ACT); R Harry (NSW), M Foley, F Dyson (both Queensland), D Giffin (ACT), J Eales (capt), T Kefu, D Wilson (all Queensland), J Williams (ACT). Replacements: J Paul (ACT) for Foley, 35; M Connors (Queensland) for Williams, 40; Williams for Kefu, 64; B Tune (Queensland) for Roff, 40; Roff for Mortlock, 78.

Referee: J Kaplan (South Africa).

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