Last-gasp Kefu gives Eales his perfect exit line

Australia 29 New Zealand 26
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The Independent Online

John Eales brought the curtain down on his glittering playing career by captaining Australia to victory in the Tri-Nations decider against New Zealand in his final Test appearance yesterday in Sydney.

The 31-year-old lock forward fought back tears as he hoisted yet another trophy above his giant frame before bidding farewell to the capacity crowd of 91,000.

"I've had a great career but I knew it was time for me to go," Eales said. "It's a very emotional time for me but it's a great way to go out."

Eales confirmed last month that he would retire after this season's final Tri-Nations match, ending a career which has spanned 11 seasons and 86 Tests. During that time, the Queenslander achieved every honour in the game. He made his international debut against Wales in 1991 and later that year he was a member of Nick Farr-Jones' Australian team that won the World Cup.

Eight years later, in 1999, Eales emulated Farr-Jones by leading Australia to a second World Cup triumph. Then, in 2000, the man known Down Under as "Nobody" (as in "Nobody's Perfect") showed his versatility by kicking the winning goal against New Zealand which enabled Australia to win the Tri-Nations for the first time. And this summer, he led Australia to an historic first series win over the British and Irish Lions.

"We're all thankful for the wonderful legacy John Eales has given to Australian rugby," the Wallabies' coach, Eddie Jones, said. "His departure will leave an enormous vacuum that will be difficult to fill."

Eales replaced Michael Lynagh as Australia's captain in 1996 and went on to lead his country a record 55 times. One of the hallmarks of his leadership has been his team's uncanny ability to win matches they seemed destined to lose.

They reached the 1999 World Cup final after beating South Africa in extra time, needed last-minute penalties to beat both the All Blacks and Springboks in the 2000 Tri-Nations, and came from behind to defeat the Lions 2-1. So it was fitting that in Eales' final game, Australia secured a 29-26 victory when Toutai Kefu barged over for the crucial try a minute from the end after being released by Matt Cockbain.

"It's great to go out with a win," Eales said. "When you lose, you usually get a chance to make up for it a week later, but I'm going into the longest off-season of my life so I was desperate to win this one."

Australia, 19-6 ahead at the interval, trailed 26-22 after the All Blacks scored 17 points in the opening 11 minutes of the second half. Doug Howlett and Pita Alatina took advantage of the sin-binning of the Australian prop Rod Moore with early second-half tries. Before the break, after Andrew Mehrtens and Matt Burke had swapped penalties, the Australians scored 10 points while the All Blacks' Norm Maxwell was in the sin-bin.

Australia: M Burke (A Walker, 65); C Latham, D Herbert, N Grey (E Flatley, 70), J Roff; S Larkham, G Gregan; N Stiles, M Foley, R Moore (B Darwin, 45), D Giffin (M Cockbain, 70), J Eales (capt), O Finegan, T Kefu, G Smith (P Waugh, 53).

New Zealand: L MacDonald; D Howlett (C Cullen, 60), T Umaga, P Alatini, J Lomu; A Mehrtens, B Kelleher (J Marshall, 65); C Hoeft, A Oliver (capt), G Somerville (C Hayman, 70), N Maxwell, C Jack, T Flavell, R Cribb, T Randell (M Holah, 32).

Referee: T Henning (SA).