The All Blacks were too erratic to claim exalted status on the night, too slack and sloppy in allowing Australia to revive from a 20-0 deficit and come close to pulling off a major shock. When the Wallabies fought back to 20-19 early in the second half, the New Zealanders looked stunned. But they rode the storm thanks to three acts of indiscipline by the Australian forwards, two by the replacement prop Matt Dunning, which presented Luke McAlister with a hat-trick of penalty goals inside 11 minutes. That pushed New Zealand out to a 29-19 advantage and settled their nerves.
The All Blacks were grateful for Howlett's contribution, the wing taking his tally of Test tries to 39. His first came after 20 minutes from an audacious cross-field chip by the lock Ali Williams; his second eight minutes later, from a move of classic simplicity featuring quick hands down the back line. Howlett then pounced after Drew Mitchell dropped a high kick eight minutes from the end, taking Keven Mealamu's pass down the blindside to score.
But the Kiwis' coach, Graham Henry, will find plenty wrong with the All Blacks' display. At 20-0 against an Australian side who had lost their previous four Tests, a great New Zealand side would have gone for the jugular. Instead, shaky defence allowed Australia back into the game, Mark Gerrard's angled run through some weak tackles setting up the lock Mark Chisholm for their first try.
That made it 20-5 at half-time, but astonishingly, Australia were within a point just seven minutes into the second half. Gerrard scored himself from a simple inside run and when Leon MacDonald's kick was charged down, Lote Tuqiri dribbled on to score. Mat Rogers converted both and the All Blacks were shaking.
The lack of composure in the New Zealand side was again shown later on when Rogers and George Smith opened up what should have been a solid defensive line to put the substitute Lloyd Johansson over for a try.
The high error count in the New Zealand game was uncharacteristic for them and kept the Wallabies in with a sniff. But they have now lost five successive Tests, their worst run since 1968-69. Yet amid such a disastrous spell, their scrum-half George Gregan took the opportunity to remind everyone he still has the talent to play on at this level. On the day he equalled Jason Leonard's world record of 114 caps, Gregan gave a greatly improved display. Clearly, though, New Zealand and South Africa stand at the top of the world game.
New Zealand: M Muliaina; D Howlett, T Umaga (capt), A Mauger, J Rokocoko; L MacDonald (L McAlister, 48), P Weepu (K Senio, 76); T Woodcock, K Mealamu, C Hayman (G Somerville, 65), C Jack (J Ryan, 54), A Williams, S Lauaki, R McCaw, R So'oialo.
Australia: D Mitchell (L MacKay, 74); M Gerrard, C Rathbone (L Johansson, 66), M Turinui, L Tuqiri; M Rogers, G Gregan (capt; C Whitaker, 73); B Young (M Dunning, 48), B Cannon (A Freier, 76), A Baxter, M Chisholm (A Kanaar, 68), N Sharpe, R Elsom (J Roe, 48), P Waugh, G Smith.
Referee: C White (England).