New Zealand's All Blacks eased a public crisis of confidence on the weekend when they beat Australia 26-12 to win rugby's Tri-Nations title.
Until Saturday's match at Eden Park, New Zealand had appeared to struggle under the weight of favoritism for this year's Rugby World Cup in France, compiling a series of lackluster performances.
New Zealand had chosen as it's Cup credo "Believe in Black," but the belief of the public in the All Blacks' Cup buildup had been damaged by their team's unconvincing form, most recently a 20-15 loss to Australia in Melbourne.
A perception had been growing in New Zealand that the All Blacks' Cup preparation had been mismanaged. Top players, dubbed the "Cotton Wool Club," had been held back from top rugby and their sub-par performances in six Tests this season suggested they were suffering from a lack of match play.
Saturday's Test was the last for both New Zealand and Australia before the World Cup, now six weeks away, and both sides took some heart from their performances. New Zealanders, particularly, celebrated a win which kept the Tri-Nations trophy and Bledisloe Cups in New Zealand and extended the All Blacks' winning streak over the Wallabies at Eden Park to 22 years.
The dysfunction among the All Blacks backs - their inability to take try-scoring chances - had been the main concern of the season and that couldn't be allayed on Saturday. If the All Blacks had the intention of running the ball, it was ditched when an electrical storm burst over Eden Park before kickoff and brought torrential rain which lasted well into the first half.
The rain, which made the ball slick and the surface treacherous, ended any hope of an open game and caused both sides to review their tactics in the few minutes before kickoff.
The first half resolved into a physical forward struggle which heightened in a second half in which New Zealand eventually gained control.
Points came from goalkicks until the 59th minute, when All Blacks prop Tony Woodcock dived over the Wallabies line centimeters from the right-hand corner flag. The try was Woodcock's second in Test rugby and his second in consecutive matches against Australia.
Daniel Carter provided the remainder of New Zealand's points: seven penalties. Stirling Mortlock kicked three penalties from three attempts for the Wallabies and Matt Giteau landed a wobbly, 48m dropped goal - his first in Test rugby - for an early 6-3 lead.
The Wallabies dominated possession and territory in the first half. They tested the All Blacks with high kicks and probed the blindside effectively, though they weren't able to burst concerted New Zealand defense.
Two key substitutions after halftime, the replacement of scrumhalf Byron Kelleher with Brendon Leonard and hooker Anton Oliver with Keven Mealamu, stimulated a considerable improvement in the All Blacks' form.
? Weepu, Flavell out
All Blacks selectors sprung two surprises in the World Cup squad announced yesterday with the recall of Andy Ellis and Sione Lauaki at the expense of Piri Weepu and Troy Flavell.
Richie McCaw will captain the squad in which selectors have gone for a 16 forwards, 14 backs split, but only named a 29-man squad.
A place has been left open for prop Greg Somerville if he can make a satisfactory recovery from Achilles tendon surgery which has kept him out of Test rugby for 10 months.
It is the most experienced squad New Zealand has ever sent to a World Cup with Byron Kelleher and Reuben Thorne on their third campaign and, if Somerville is selected, there will be 15 survivors from 2003.
Apart from the dumping of Weepu and Flavell the squad is largely as expected.
Imposing loose forward Sione Lauaki has been included after missing the Tri-Nations because of injury, and with Thorne favoured as a utility man who can double at flanker or lock, there was no room for Flavell.
Forwards: Rodney So'oialo, Chris Masoe, Richie McCaw (captain), Jerry Collins, Reuben Thorne, Sione Lauaki, Ali Williams, Chris Jack, Keith Robinson, Carl Hayman, Neemia Tialata, Tony Woodcock, Anton Oliver, Keven Mealamu, Andrew Hore.
Backs: Leon MacDonald,Mils Muliaina, Doug Howlett, Joe Rokocoko, Sitiveni Sivivatu, Isaia Toeava, Conrad Smith, Luke McAlister, Aaron Mauger, Daniel Carter, Nick Evans, Byron Kelleher, Andrew Ellis, Brendon Leonard.
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