Howlett's finishing hides New Zealand flaws

New Zealand 34 Australia 24
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The Independent Online

Yet two years since they fell apart in a World Cup semi-final against Australia in Sydney, disturbing traits remain within the New Zealand side. A 20-0 lead after half an hour should have been the launch pad for a crushing victory against an injury-ravaged Wallaby team. It would have been in the days of New Zealand's greatest sides, such as those of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

This New Zealand side reveals its weaknesses as much as its strengths in every game, on Saturday the latter principally being Doug Howlett's finishing, which brought him three tries.

But his team's concentration wavered and needless mistakes proliferated. Within seven minutes of the restart, Australia were back to 20-19, a ridiculous scenario given their complete inferiority in the first half hour.

The All Blacks looked vulnerable and the Australians sensed an extraordinary upset. There might have been one, too, but for the indiscipline of a couple of the Wallaby forwards, notably the replacement prop Matt Dunning, who conceded two vital penalties.

Luke McAlister, on for the last half hour, calmly slotted three penalty goals to steady his team's nerves and restore their authority. But the chinks in this New Zealand side's armour were very apparent, the defensive line falling apart at times to wave the Wallabies through. Much work lies ahead for Henry and his coaching staff if New Zealand are to end their long wait for a second World Cup win.

In November they will attempt the grand slam in Tests against England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland. Henry will bring an enlarged squad of 35 players north. But it is possible that some key players will stay at home. Henry is mindful that a few, perhaps including the captain, Tana Umaga, will need careful handling to get them to France.

The Wallabies wore brighter smiles, even in defeat. They may have found a replacement for Stephen Larkham at No 10, such was the conviction of Mat Rogers' play in an emergency role. And the wing Mark Gerrard, who made one try and scored another, looked good.

Nevertheless, a rebuilding job lies ahead for Eddie Jones' men, starting with their own northern hemisphere tour this autumn.

New Zealand: Tries Howlett 3, McCaw; Conversion MacDonald; Penalties McAlister 3, MacDonald. Australia: Tries Chisholm, Gerrard, Tuqiri, Johansson; Conversions Rogers 2.

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).