By DUNCAN JOHNSTONE - Stuff.co.nz
OPINION: It wasn't always pretty but it was pretty damn important. Here are some things I liked about the All Blacks' one point win over Australia.
The Bledisloe Cup, of course. It's the seventh straight year the All Blacks have won it and outside of that elusive World Cup it's the trophy we cherish most. These four-match series are loaded in favour of the holders but we'll take it, thank you very much.
True grit. Given that Graham Henry's side was staring at a third consecutive loss - even with just a few minutes left - this was always going to be a win-at-all-costs, win-it-anyway-you-can affair for New Zealand. Guts and determination were the basis of this victory along with some more sensible tactics.
Composure. The All Blacks kept their cool and kept plugging away even as they were frustrated by referee Jonathan Kaplan, their own frequent errors and a resilient Wallabies side. The heads never went down. They made sure they got to the right end of the paddock to apply the pressure when necessary and sealed the deal right at the end in a way that some recent Wallabies teams have nailed New Zealand over the last decade.
The emotion. Some better singing of the national anthem emerged in front of 80,000 people in Sydney and wasn't it great to see the joy at the final whistle. This win clearly meant a lot to these All Blacks and good on them for showing their joy and letting off their steam a bit afterwards as they supped the winner's spoils from the biggest beer mug in world rugby.
Dan Carter. Yes, our match-winner is back. The guy is sheer class, coming through a cauldron on the back of less than a handful of games at a distinctly lower level than what he encountered at ANZ Stadium. He even had the cheek to shrug off his missed dropped goal with a laugh and then nail a difficult penalty to win the game. The side looks better for his navigation skills.
Stephen Donald. The guy has had a tough time in the absence of Carter but let's not forget he was there, mostly at No 10, in the final quarter. It's great to see the coaches haven't given up on the investment they have made in Donald. Just as he did in Brisbane last year, he got the business done again against the Wallabies, comfortable with the man at his shoulder.
The set pieces. There's no greater sight to a front row than seeing an opposition prop - especially the anchor tighthead - snubbed off after 31 minutes. Job done, then and there really. Al Baxter got cleaned out by Tony Woodcock, a guy some clown of a former Wallaby labelled a myth not so long ago. The dominant scrum was backed up by parity in the lineout and given the recent struggles in this department that was good enough. It was also sensible to see them going to No 2 for the money ball, especially early on. Kieran Read provided a solid option alongside the locks.
Defence. OK the All Blacks only scored one try but they didn't concede any. This is a tight championship and the defensive systems are dominating. Hats off to Jimmy Cowan for his desperate lowering of big Nathan Sharpe with the Wallabies lock sniffing a touchdown. But there were some brutal hits all round. Now Henry and Wayne Smith just need to get the attack operating to the same high standards
Sitiveni Sivivatu. The guy was well off his game in South Africa but he bounced back in Sydney to be a constant menace down the left wing. It wasn't only there either - he frequently turned up at first receiver, playing like a No 10 late in the match to confuse the Aussie defence. And what a sweet move and pass to set up the only try.
Defusing the bombs. The All Blacks' work under the high ball in South Africa resembled that of 10-year-olds. Not so in Sydney where they showed considerable accuracy as they were frequently tested. The back three did a good job and will take confidence in this key aspect as they get set to face another aerial assault from the Springboks in Hamilton.
The physicality. It's fair to say the Boks outmuscled the All Blacks at times. The big boys got their mojos back for the Bledisloe. There was far more urgency at the breakdowns and the tackling was an offensive weapon at times. When big bad Brad Thorne says he's absolutely knackered at the end of a game you know the hard yards have been put in where they matter most.
The kicking. Good to see the side playing some percentage rugby again rather than the willy-nilly running from behind their own posts that got them into so much trouble in Durban. Carter and Luke McAlister got the All Blacks into the right areas of the field to have a go. Ma'a Nonu needs to get some urgent practice in over the next three weeks. But it wasn't all kicking and with the Wallabies entering into a similar spirit there was enough attempted turning to entertain the crowd while the tight nature of the match made it compelling viewing right to the end.
So there you are - no shortage of things to admire from the All Blacks who have got their struggling campaign back on track. One win doesn't make a season but when it involves winning the Bledisloe Cup it's a victory that should certainly be cherished.
As pleasing as it was in many areas though, the All Blacks were sensible enough in the wake of their celebrations to admit it was far from perfect. They still need to back up their heart and determination with far more precision to get back to the sort of levels they were operating at by the end of last year.
But this was a big step in the right direction and if the battered Wallabies can somehow hold out the rampant Springboks in Australia over the next two weeks, Hamilton could be set for a real humdinger.