x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

All Blacks fight back against Australia

New Zealand drew first blood in the 2009 Bledisloe Cup and Tri Nations series with an entertaining, hard-fought 22-16 win against Australia in Auckland.

New Zealand drew first blood in the 2009 Tri Nations series with a hard-fought win against Australia in Auckland. With talisman captain Richie McCaw back to lead the way, the All Blacks shrugged off their indifferent early-season form to come from behind and lay down a marker ahead of Tests in South Africa in the coming two weekends. Fly-half Stephen Donald paved the way to vistory with a haul of 17 points from his boot to claim first blood in the Bledisloe Cup, which is played for between the two sides. Twelve months ago McCaw, who remains unbeaten at home as captain, returned from a six-week injury lay-off to inspire the All Blacks to a 39-10 victory against the Wallabies at Eden Park just a week after a heavy defeat in Sydney. In similar circumstances, he produced another strong performance, including scoring their sole try, to galvanise a side who had stuttered their way to a drawn series with France and a win over Italy in the build-up to the Tri Nations. The All Blacks were also helped by the return of No 8 Rodney So'oialo, along with centre Conrad Smith and wing Sitiveni Sivivatu in the backs. Their presence added composure and direction to the team, who grew in confidence as the match wore on.

A relieved McCaw acknowledged that his men had been pushed hard."At the end of the day there's very little between these teams," he said. "The team who want to dig deepest are the team who will always come out on top in the end in a match like that." For the Wallabies, though, the ghosts at Eden Park continue to haunt them and they will be disappointed not to have given stalwart George Smith the victory he deserved in his 100th Test. The Australians have not won at the Auckland venue since 1986, but hopes of changing that were high when they raced to a 10-0 lead inside 10 minutes. First Berrick Barnes ghosted past some indifferent All Blacks defence to touch down after four minutes and Matt Giteau's conversion and a penalty gave them a handy lead.

Donald then missed his first shot at goal but made no mistake with his second a minute later when Benn Robinson was marched 10 metres for throwing the ball away to put the penalty within kicking distance. A poor decision by Donald in the 18th minute to grubber kick deep in his own half should have been punished by Australia and was not, and this proved to be a turning point in the game as the New Zealanders got their tails up. The kick came back off the legs of Giteau, who dived forward to smother it before popping the ball up to Barnes. He evaded the All Blacks defence but held onto the ball too long then saw his pass to George Smith hit the flanker and go forward with the line begging. McCaw was later penalised for playing the ball off his feet and Giteau's second penalty hit the upright before going over to put the visitors 13-3 ahead.

But the All Blacks got themselves right back in the game with a try by their captain. After struggling at line-out time - where two throws by Andrew Hore went too long and led directly to points to the Wallabies - they opted to throw to So'oialo at the front who took it comfortably. That sparked a nice interplay between Donald, who produced a far more assured performance than he had against France last month, Sivivatu and McCaw which got the All Blacks close. The ball then found its way back to the All Blacks fly-half, who was nailed in the tackle, but Conrad Smith gathered the ball and set McCaw away. Donald's conversion reduced the deficit to 13-10 and the score remained that way to half-time after he and Giteau each missed a penalty attempt. Donald got the All Blacks ahead early in the second half with two successful penalties before Giteau replied to level the scores 16-16.

Donald, with the wind behind him in the second half, banged over another three-pointer after a charge down by Jerome Kaino on Giteau. Giteau's radar continued to falter, and when he missed another chance on 63 minutes Australia's hopes of victory began to fade. The All Blacks kept up the pressure and the mistakes came from the visitors, with hooker Stephen Moore penalised for killing the ball and allowing Donald to kick his fifth three-pointer of the night six minutes from time to put the home side six points in front. Super defence in the dying minutes ensured that was as close as the Australians would get. The Australian captain, Stirling Mortlock, was disappointed they had allowed the game to slip from their grasp. "Our discipline let us down, especially playing into the wind in the second half," he said. "When you give a team as good as the All Blacks that many opportunities, you can't expect to win." New Zealand will aim to make it two wins out of two with success against South africa in Bloemfontein next Saturday. gcaygill@thenational.ae