The All Blacks drew first blood in the Tri-Nations championship when they came from behind to beat Australia 22-16 yesterday, kicked home by the much maligned Stephen Donald.
Donald was a contentious selection after a wayward time in last month’s Tests against France, but atoned here with five penalties and a conversion as the All Blacks fought back from a 3-13 deficit.
The flyhalf gained in confidence as the game progressed to direct the All Blacks around the park, but it was the return from injury of inspirational captain Richie McCaw that lifted the All Blacks.
It was not classic All Blacks rugby, but it showed the defending champions are beginning to gel as they head to South Africa for their next two encounters.
They lost three line-outs and missed 12 tackles in the match and were outplayed in the first 20 minutes, but they had a clear edge in the scrums where the Wallabies front three struggled all night.
“It was a game based on character,” All Blacks coach Graham Henry said. “We got behind early, by 10 [points] and there’s two ways you can go then, and the guys showed a lot of character to come out of that and play better as the game went on. Also, I think we should get better now, we have a foundation to build on.”
Australian captain Stirling Mortlock was left frustrated that his side had squandered a lead for the third time in as many games against New Zealand.
“I think it’s pleasing we are creating more opportunities and chances, but frustrating that we’re not taking advantage of them,” Mortlock said.
Coach Robbie Deans maintained there was little between the two teams.
“The point of difference between the two sides is that, into the breeze, they got into the 22 once and scored, and we didn’t,” Deans said.
McCaw scored the All Blacks only try and brought a determination to their play as they extended their unbeaten run to 21 Tests at Eden Park, which will be the focal arena in the 2011 World Cup.
Australia’s points came from a try by Berrick Barnes, with Matt Giteau adding three penalties and a conversion.
It was not the result George Smith wanted as the dynamic Wallabies flanker became only the 10th player in rugby history to play 100 Tests.
He had the honor of leading his side on to the field and took the time for a quick handshake with former All Black great Jonah Lomu, who formed part of a guard of honor for the teams.
The Wallabies played the first half with the strong wind behind them, but held only a three-point lead at halftime when they turned 13-10 ahead.
They had identified an All Blacks defensive weakness in the midfield, which Barnes exploited for their opening try and it was the Wallabies own errors that denied them five-pointers on at least two other occasions.
Barnes waltzed over five minutes into the game, making light of a half-hearted All Blacks’ defense to open the scoring, with Giteau adding the extra two points from out wide.
Giteau extended the lead a few minutes later, cashing in on the strong tail wind to land a 48m penalty from an All Blacks ruck infringement.
Donald opened the All Blacks scoring with a penalty and Giteau added two more for Australia to have the visitors up 13-3 after 20 minutes when All Blacks skipper Richie McCaw stepped up to launch the fightback.
After a sustained wave of attacks on the Wallabies line, McCaw, with his follow-me style of leadership, crashed his way over for the first try against Australia in their past 220 minutes of rugby.