All Blacks return to winners circle with victory over Ireland (+photos)

By Daniel Gilhooly

All Blacks 21 Ireland 11

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The rusty All Blacks did just enough to preserve their unbeaten test rugby record against Ireland in Wellington tonight, winning a dour match 21-11 in miserable conditions.

In the first test since their inglorious World Cup exit eight months ago, the All Blacks were flattered by the 10-point winning margin against opponents who more than matched them up front.

Two key scoring plays midway through the second half broke the heart of the Irish, who had looked more than capable of pulling off an upset throughout the first 60 minutes.

They led for long periods of the first half and, with the scores level 8-8 at halftime, their first win in 21 tests spanning 103 years moved into sight.

However, first five-eighth Carter's third penalty for an Irish punch and a try three minutes later to second five-eighth Ma'a Nonu made the difference.

Carter, who this week announced he is to sign with the New Zealand Rugby Union until 2011, was a key figure. He missed his first two shots but landed the next four in an 11-point haul.

He engaged in a kicking duel with opposite Ronan O'Gara, who kicked two-from-four for six points.

Without command up front against an Irish pack dominated by European Cup champions Munster, the All Blacks backs had few chances to shine in an uncomfortable night.

The home pack employed the pick and go to good effect while the Irish didn't bother with such methods, often going straight to the boot of O'Gara to kick for position.

Irish lock Paul O'Connell was the best forward on show in a test that was always going to be trench warfare and it was clear the All Blacks missed departed forwards such as Carl Hayman, Chris Jack and Jerry Collins.

Just six All Blacks retained their starting spots from the World Cup calamity against France last October and while the match was touted as the start of a new era, coach Graham Henry clearly has much work to get his team up to the standard of recent seasons.

The All Blacks built early pressure on the Irish line but a spilled pass by Nonu set the tone for a match in which handling was difficult.

Winger Tommy Bowe was unlucky not to score when the ball just beat him to the corner flag off the charge down of a clearing kick by All Blacks fullback Mils Muliaina.

O'Gara landed the first points with a ninth-minute penalty before All Blacks winger Sitiveni Sivivatu slid over in the left corner from the most expansive passage of the game.

Hooker Andrew Hore won a ruck turnover for New Zealand and the ball was spread quickly to centre Conrad Smith, who turned opposite Brian O'Driscoll inside out before finding Sivivatu.

Ireland's sole try came in the 21st minute to second five-eighth Paddy Wallace, named to start late in the week following injury to Luke Fitzgerald.

He broke smartly to the blindside and collected a pass from O'Gara after a period of Irish attack.

Carter landed a penalty 7min before halftime to level the score following a passage which saw prop John Afoa leave the field with a knee injury. He was replaced by John Schwalger.

The respective first five-eighths traded penalties within 6min of the rest art, O'Gara followed by Carter, as the All Blacks pack enjoyed its best period of the game.

A turning point came in the 60th minute when Ireland were awarded a scrum but had it turned into a penalty against them when prop Marcus Horan threw a punch at a prone All Black.

Carter kicked the penalty and 3min later set up the matchwinning try when he busted the defensive line.

From the resulting ruck Schwalger offloaded to Hurricanes teammate Nonu who caught the ball skilfully behind him and powered 20m to score.

O'Gara missed a 40m penalty attempt with 13min left as the match petered out in a sea of mistakes.

Winger Anthony Tuitavake made his All Blacks test debut while uncapped flanker Adam Thomson made a brief appearance off the reserve bench.

New Zealand 21 (Sitiveni Sivivatu, Ma'a Nonu tries; Daniel Carter 3 pen, con) Ireland 11 (Paddy Wallace try; Ronan O'Gara 2 pen). Halftime: 8-8.

- NZPA

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