History was in the air at Eden Park in Auckland as the All Blacks celebrated 100 years of Tests by regaining the Bledisloe Cup and completing a clean sweep in this season's Tri-Nations series.
A pair of first-half tries by Doug Howlett laid the platform for New Zealand's third grand slam in the southern- hemisphere championship, which began in 1996. But if the past and present were taken care of, the future looked tantalisingly less certain, with the re-emergence of Australia as contenders for the World Cup on home soil in October.
A drive-past of 25 former All Black captains put the crowd in party mood, but they were soon rummaging for their raincoats and bemoaning a far less riotous display from the New Zealand backs than had been seen in record wins earlier in the tournament.
Instead it was a night for the All Black forwards to show their mettle. Keven Mealamu's initial waywardness at the line-out set the alarm bells clanging, but around the fringes the Wallabies were slammed back by some superb tackles from Chris Jack, Ali Williams and Reuben Thorne. When Australia closed to within four points with a try by George Smith after 76 minutes, Thorne spiked their guns with a couple of brave takes at the front of the line-out.
"New Zealand have certainly set the benchmark in southern-hemisphere rugby," said Australia's captain, George Gregan, perhaps mindful of leaving room for England in the world order.
The All Black coach, John Mitchell, observed his delighted team's lap of honour with the same calm detachment that has characterised his 22 months in charge. To date it has been a successful reign - two Tri-Nations titles, and 16 wins and a draw from 20 matches - but with the caveat of defeats by England at Twickenham last November and in Wellington in June.
New Zealand's threat, clearly, increases in direct proportion to their ability to get the ball out wide. Australia took the lead with the first of four penalty goals by Elton Flatley, but a poor punt from Steve Larkham - by no means the last from either side - invited a devastating counter- attack in the sixth minute.
Mils Muliaina collected Larkham's kick, scooted past Mat Rogers and Wendell Sailor and fed the excellent Richie McCaw, who took the move up to the Australian 22. Carlos Spencer and Aaron Mauger shifted play to the right, Mealamu thundered between Phil Waugh and the ponderous Glenn Panoho, and Howlett, playing on his home ground, finished it off for his 23rd try in 31 Tests.
After 27 minutes, Howlett was at it again, leaving Flatley flat-footed to reach a deft chip from Spencer. But Muliaina was struck down by a hamstring injury and the Wallabies battled hard, earning a further penalty goal by Flatley to two from Spencer. Twice in the third quarter the visitors were within touching distance of a try, only to be given the thumbs-down by the television match official.
When Smith brilliantly collected Gregan's pass behind his back to score at the left-hand corner, a grandstand finish was assured. Crucially, though, Flatley missed the conversion, and the Wallabies' five-year hold on the Bledisloe Cup was over. With Jonah Lomu injured, Mitchell's World Cup squad, to be named tomorrow week, should hold few surprises.
New Zealand 21 Australia 17
Tries: Howlett 2 Try: Smith
Con: Spencer Pens: Flatley 4
Pens: Spencer 3
Half-time: 15-9 Attendance: 50,000
New Zealand: M Muliaina (L MacDonald, 46); D Howlett, T Umaga, A Mauger, J Rokocoko; C Spencer, J Marshall; D Hewett, K Mealamu, G Somerville, C Jack, A Williams, R Thorne (capt), J Collins, R McCaw.
Australia: C Latham; W Sailor (M Burke, h-t), M Rogers, E Flatley, L Tuqiri; S Larkham (M Giteau, 68), G Gregan (capt); B Young, B Cannon (J Paul, 66), G Panoho (A Baxter, 38), D Giffin, D Vickerman (N Sharpe, 47), G Smith, T Kefu (O Finegan, 50), P Waugh.
Referee: J Kaplan (South Africa).
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