Monday, November 03, 2008

ABs crowned kings of Hong Kong

By DUNCAN JOHNSTONE in Hong Kong, Fairfax Media
Sunday, 02 November 2008

It was a long time coming – not surprising given their recent inactivity – but the All Blacks managed to shake off some rust and a tenacious Wallabies team to eventually continue their Bledisloe Cup dominance with a 19-14 win.

The carnival atmosphere in the stands was in stark contrast to the intense battle on the field as New Zealand overcame the concession of two early tries to wear down the Wallabies with a strong second half effort that left the ledger 3-1 in their favour.

As was always the likely outcome in the debate over the Wallabies training against the Air New Zealand Cup match play of the All Blacks, it was New Zealand who finished stronger.

This wasn't a convincing performance by any means though. It was built more on guts than precision but the All Blacks will be all the better for it as they now embark on their Grand Slam attempt with their confidence and hopefully their rhythm boosted by this crucial win.

It was another notch in Graham Henry's belt in his battle with Robbie Deans although this has been a pulsating series right through to the final whistle. Both teams struggled with their footing on a shifty surface and complicating things was Irish referee Allan Lewis who laboured with the pace of the match and the ELVs.

Many of his rulings will have perplexed the coaches, the teams and the Hong Kong crowd of 39,782, many of whom were trying to come to grips with the oddities of the 15-man game after their steady diet of sevens rugby over the years. Fortunately for the All Blacks most of his calls went their way - penalties and a forward pass that gave Richie McCaw a crucial try.

But this victory came at a price with in-form hooker Andrew Hore left on the sidelines on crutches after suffering what appeared to be a serious injury to his lower left leg.
That occurred less than five minutes into the match and started a wobbly first half by the All Blacks.

The Wallabies, boosted by five weeks together, certainly looked dangerous with superior handling, an improved scrum and a good defensive line helping them to a 14-9 lead at the break, courtesy of recalled wing Drew Mitchell.

But in the stifling heat the All Blacks slowly but surely took control and the second half injection of players like Piri Weepu and Ma'a Nonu - two who have been recently busy in Wellington's campaign - brought a bit of solidity to the backline effort.

Conrad Smith was another to shine and the enigmatic Isaia Toeava also came to live in the second half revival before making way to give Cory Jane five minutes on his debut.
The most consistent aspect of the All Blacks was their lineout.

Stephen Donald was subbed after 50 minutes, his starting debut at No 10 a mixed bag that lacked real authority at times. Dan Carter guided the side home much to the relief of anyone wearing black in the impressive stadium. The All Blacks were guilty of some clumsy play early that saw a turnover inside their own 22 when Hosea Gear knocked on with his first touch in test rugby. Matt Giteau ran at the defence and flicked an in-pass for Drew Mitchell to crash over between the posts. Australia struck copped a scrum penalty that Carter landed from wide out.
Errors continued to plague both teams and in the hurly burly Matt Giteau got caught by a Jerome Kaino tackle as the ball arrived that laid him out.

Carter kept the All Blacks in touch with a goal from in front of the posts as the penalty count started to favour New Zealand. But the Wallabies continued to make good use of the left of the field with Mitchell featuring twice, to first stretch the All Blacks defence and then get the feed to cross in the corner. Giteau's sideline conversion gave the Aussies control.

But Carter kept chipping away with a penalty from halfway to keep the All Blacks in touch at 9-14 at halftime. Finally they found some glue on their hands after the restart, winning a ruck on the Wallabies' 22 and with the ball going left Conrad Smith and Isaia Toeava got away good passes to free Sitiveni Sivivatu to score his first try since June 14 against England.

Carter missed the conversion and a penalty as the match stayed tied at 14-all. The substitutions started to come as the heat took its toll with Piri Weepu and Ma'a Nonu - two players who have been busy with Wellington - helping the second half fluidity. That eventually led to McCaw being given a massive overlap courtesy of a looping forward pass from Sivivatu to touch down in the right and corner and give his side the lead for the first time.

They managed to hold on as the Wallabies through plenty at them over the dying stages.
For a city that sure soaks up its share of Americana - baseball's World Series and Halloween were big here over the last week - the All Blacks managed to snare their share of headlines in Hong Kong and get over a scare or two of their own.

It's on to Edinburgh today to start the latest Grand Slam attempt against Scotland. Most of the players who endured the heat and humidity last will be rested for the bigger tests against Ireland, Wales and England. And so they should. This was a draining effort that eventually brought the right result.

New Zealand 19: Sitiveni Sivivatu, Richie McCaw tries; Dan Carter 3 pen.
Australia 14: Drew Mitchell 2 tries; Matt Giteau 2 con. Ht: 14-9

IAIN McGREGOR/Fairfax MediaBLOOD, SWEAT, CHEERS: A bloodied Rodney So'oialo is all smiles after beating Australia.

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