Recalled winger Doug Howlett scored three tries yesterday as New Zealand beat Australia 34-24 to hand the Wallabies their fifth straight loss and replace South Africa as Tri-Nations rugby champions.
The All Blacks scored four tries to extend Australia's losing streak to its longest since 1969.
Australian captain George Gregan took the field yesterday in his 114th test, equaling the world record of England prop Jason Leonard, and left 71 minutes later, after Howlett's third try, with his own future insecure.
"Tests don't get any easier, particularly against these guys," Gregan said. "But they're still enjoyable. I'm still enjoying it, I've pulled up OK so I guess I'll keep chalking them up."
Aware of the threat to their reputation and their futures, the Wallabies played with genuine spirit, scoring three tries to slash the All Blacks' 20-0 lead after 28 minutes to 20-19 by the eighth minute of the second half.
Ultimately, the severely weakened Wallabies' lineup could not stand the relentless pressure applied by the All Blacks whose bullish forward pack blew apart their scrum, rattled their lineouts and outmatched them at breakdowns.
Australia had as many as 17 players unavailable through injury and their lack of experience and lack of cohesion was reflected in the All Blacks' lead. But a rally sparked by winger Mark Gerrard made New Zealand's success hard-won.
The All Blacks were forced to replace flyhalf Leon MacDonald when his charged-down clearance in the 48th minute gave up a try to Lote Tuqiri, which brought the Wallabies within a point. Youngster Luke McAlister took MacDonald's place and, in only his third test appearance, kicked three second-half penalties to lead New Zealand to safety.
"We were pretty happy with things then [at 20-0] but we let it slip," said All Blacks captain Tana Umaga. "We must have been happy because we let them right back into the match.
"We could go on about this match all night but the thing is we've got two cups [the Tri-Nations and the Bledisloe Cup, between Australia and New Zealand] and that's pretty good."
The All Blacks prefaced the match with their traditional haka "Ka Mate," putting aside the newly-written challenge they performed against the Springboks at Carisbrook a week ago which ended with mimed throat-cutting.
The All Blacks' forwards kept their combative mood and established an advantage over the weakened Wallaby pack which was the basis of their 20-0 lead.
Flanker Richie McCaw scored New Zealand's first try after 16 minutes of rising dominance, picking up an untended ball near an attacking ruck and sawing through a wide gap in Australia's close cover. Tuqiri's try set up a see-sawing last quarter in which the All Blacks gained and lost 10-point leads. McAlister kicked them to a 29-19 advantage before Wallaby replacement Lloyd Johansson scored from his first touch in test rugby, cutting the lead briefly to 29-24.
Howlett scored his third try in the 71st minute, handling twice in an attack from broken play which gave New Zealand a 10-point margin, sealing the match and the Tri-Nations series.