By MARC HINTON in Christchurch
Rejoice New Zealand. You should, for these All Blacks of yours are getting closer and closer to a rugby peak that is going to have the rest of the world needing to enter nosebleed territory to catch them.
This was a real test match. A competitive one. But in Christchurch tonight the All Blacks found a new way to do an old thing – that was to secure a ninth straight victory over the Wallabies and retain the prized Bledisloe Cup for the seventh consecutive year.
Their 20-10 victory, two tries to one, was not quite enough to put the Tri-Nations in the bag – but it is as good as theirs with the New Zealanders now on 19 out of a possible 20 points and only a cataclysmic series of events could allow the Wallabies to catch them.
It won't happen. And so a 10th Tri-Nations title will also be secured as these All Blacks lay down their marker to the rest of the rugby world.
Having won their first three Tri-Nations matches on the back of their exhilarating attacking game, it was refreshing in a way tonight to see them ride home on the back of their magnificent defensive steed. It made a change, and it's reassuring to know this side can win like artisans as well as artistes.
Where razzle-dazzle has won them their tests through this year's programme, tonight it was grit and grunt and sheer determination.
The Wallabies had more than enough ball in the second half to finally shake that black monkey off their back. But they weren't good enough. Or the All Balcks were too good on defence. Late in the second half the All Blacks had made nearly twice as many tackles as their rivals. But they kept making them, right to the end, and their vice-like grip on the blokes from across the ditch continues.
In some ways, as much as the Wallabies improved in seven days, this will be equally galling. Last week they were never in it. This one they had every chance.
In front of a capacity crowd of 39,000 at AMI Stadium, a fast-paced and free-flowing opening quarter was notable for a continuation of the All Blacks' ball-in-hand policy - not only gloriously entertaining but stunningly effective under the new laws now in play.
With the New Zealanders refusing, for the most part, to kick away possession, they conjured two magical tries inside the first 15 minutes, to rejuvenated fullback Mils Muliaina and classy centre Conrad Smith.
They were stunning scores, and summed up perfectly the strikepower of these All Blacks as they play with those mighty twin traits of pace and precision. They know as they work through the phases that they can wear defensive lines down, eventually finding holes to probe, if they're patient and accurate enough.
Muliaina's sixth-minute touchdown, his 29th test try, continued a rich vein of form since his belated return to the arena this year after thumb and calf injuries. And Smith's measured strike eight minutes later demonstrated palpably what a wonderfully efficient footballer this fellow is. Sonny Bill Williams may be looming menacingly in the background, but right now the All Blacks are splendidly served by their midfield men.
Smith actually featured in Muliaina's try when his initial carry got the go-forward and then Keven Mealamu – another in splendid form – and Joe Rokocoko played their parts perfectly to put the fullback over with not much room for error down the blindside.
It was similar stuff when Smith was eventually put over wide on the left. This time it was Dan Carter who created the initial breach, and when he was able to pop the ball off the deck, Piri Weepu's sharp clearance enabled Nonu to put his old mate over against an outmatched Wallabies defence.
But there was a difference this week. The Wallabies showed a bit more resilience and crucially kept the All Blacks within reach. When Carter made a rare error on the carry soon after Muliaina's opening score, the Australians pounced, David Pocock and Nathan Sharpe good enough to put Kurtley Beale away on a 65m run to the line.
Yes, this was better stuff from the Aussies. Their application in the key area of ball retention was streets ahead of Melbourne and when they did find themselves under the cosh late in the first half, they were able to prevent any further damage being inflicted when it looked imminent. At 10-17, they were well in it at the break.
But they couldn't find a way through in the second half, so once again they came up short against the All Blacks they're so desperate to defeat. Carter's penalty was the only score in the spell, and the Wallabies will be gutted by that.
But to the vistors the spoils. And the kudos. The All Black forwards were great on defence, the loose trio tackling themselves to a standstill, indefatigable Brad Thorn bashing away as he does and Mealamu continuing his magnificent form. The backs struck twice in some style early on, but thereafter largely struggled to find a way through. They were not helped, though, by a serious lack of possession for most of the second spell.
Who cares? They won a great arm-wrestle, and that, folks, is well worth celebrating.
NEW ZEALAND 20 (Mils Muliaina, Conrad Smith tries; Dan Carter two penalties, two conversions).
AUSTRALIA 10 (Kurtley Beale try; Matt Giteau penalty, conversion).