Winning ugly counts
All Blacks victorious in historic encounter but Henry admits standard of play fell short
History was made, but the final chapter in this year's Bledisloe Cup series was hardly one for the memory bank as the All Blacks 'won ugly' at Hong Kong Stadium yesterday.
The 19-14 victory over the Wallabies will give them great satisfaction as they head this morning for Scotland, the first leg of their grand slam tour. But they were the first to admit that it wasn't a riveting performance.
'The guys would've said they won ugly,' said New Zealand coach Graham Henry bluntly. 'But it was a typical All Blacks test, hard as hell and they showed a lot of guts to hit back.'
A second-half revival, partly inspired by Dan Carter moving back to his accustomed and preferred slot at flyhalf, gave the All Blacks a satisfying win in the ANZ Hong Kong 2008 Bledisloe Cup over the old enemy and saw them end the series with a 3-1 tally. It might have been the strange feeling of running out at So Kon Po, or perhaps the stifling humidity made worse by a pre-game shower, but it took time for Richie McCaw and his men to find their feet - not made easier by the poor conditions underfoot.
But McCaw refused to blame the slippery surface - after all it was the same for the Wallabies, too - for his side's lethargic first-half performance. 'The conditions were not too bad, actually it was a pretty good surface to play on,' he said. 'But we took a while to settle down.'
He was being polite to the hosts, whose fans - 39,682 of them - turned up to watch the first off-shore meeting between the two countries in the 71-year history of the Bledisloe Cup.
It was a charged atmosphere when both teams ran on to the field. But after the goose bumps had settled down, the action failed to live up to the pre-game hype from both camps who had declared it would be an all-out battle. It was more pop-gun than big bazooka stuff.
Australia coach Robbie Deans had bristled at the suggestion that since it was a 'dead rubber' the game would lack intensity. We have seen more intensity on the pitch when Valley play Hong Kong Football Club.
You couldn't fault the players. The fact that the Bledisloe Cup had already been decided - it was only on show yesterday - must have had a subconscious effect on both sides.
'It was a difficult game in very different conditions,' Henry said. 'The ball was slippery. But we showed enough guts to get through.'
They had to after trailing 14-9 at the break, with the Wallabies winning most of the possession in a first half which was dominated by aerial ping pong. The ball spent too much time in the air and not enough in the hands and it was the All Blacks who suffered as Wallabies winger Drew Mitchell grabbed a brace of tries to give his side the lead. Australia scored with their first attack when flyhalf Matt Giteau darted through a gap in midfield and popped up a pass in the tackle to Mitchell, deputising for the injured Lote Tuqiri. Mitchell barrelled through two defenders and touched down by the posts with just five minutes gone.
Mitchell was on hand in the 26th minute to complete a move which was worked wide. A good drive by loosehead prop Benn Robinson saw the ball recycled quickly and good hands from flanker George Smith resulted in Mitchell dotting down near the left corner flag. Giteau, who had knocked the first conversion over from the front of the posts, had a harder angle this time, but was as successful.
Carter's accurate boot kept the All Blacks in the hunt as he knocked over three penalties. But if the first half belonged to the Wallabies, the second half was mostly All Blacks.
'We were more passionate in the second half,' conceded Henry. 'There was more urgency in our game and this was due to some tactical changes as we placed the ball behind them.' Henry must surely have had some strong words for his side at half-time for they came back with more purpose.
The All Blacks hit back immediately after the break, with winger Sitiveni Sivivatu scooting over from close range after an All Blacks lineout inside the Wallabies 22 had led to quick ball from centre Conrad Smith who found fullback and man-of-the-match Isaia Toeava as an extra man to provide the overlap.
McCaw gave his side the lead for the first time in the 62nd minute when he scored the match-winning try, picking up a nicely floated pass from Sivivatu on his boot straps to dive over. 'There was nothing between the two teams,' said McCaw. 'We had to fight every inch, you've got to fight hard. Today was just the same as it's always been. It all comes down to what's in the ticker.'
Beaten captain Stirling Mortlock conceded that the All Blacks 'were too good again'.