6:00 AM



SYDNEY - New Zealand finally erased the bitter memories of their World Cup failure with a breathtaking 39-35 win over Australia on Saturday in a Tri-Nations championship game that will be remembered as possibly the most amazing rugby match ever staged at international level.



In front of a world record crowd of 109,874, the All Blacks snatched victory with a try by Jonah Lomu two minutes from the end.



The giant winger's score finally sank the world champion Wallabies who had fought back from 24-0 down after just nine minutes to lead 35-34 and stand within reach of an incredible comeback victory with just minutes to go.

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"I doubt if there's ever been a better or more remarkable game of rugby ever played," Australian captain John Eales said.



"It was a very fitting game for a world record crowd and in all my years of playing I've never seen a game like that."



The Wallabies, unbeaten in their last 10 internationals, appeared to have the game won after a try by replacement hooker Jeremy Paul in the 73rd minute put them ahead for the second time until Lomu grabbed the matchwinner.



"It was a great occasion, a truly great game of rugby," New Zealand captain Todd Blackadder said.



"It was a game that was in the balance all the way to the end and could have gone either way."



Desperate to restore their wounded pride after last year's World Cup semifinal loss to France, New Zealand stunned the Wallabies with three tries in the opening five minutes.



All Black winger Tana Umaga set the tone for an electrifying match when he sprinted away to score the opening try in the second minute. Centre Pita Alatini and fullback Christian Cullen crossed over in quick succession and Andrew Mehrtens converted all three tries.



Mehrtens then added a penalty in the ninth minute to make it 24-0 and silence the capacity crowd before the Wallabies began their recovery.

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"When you get 24-0 in front against a poor team, you expect to go on with it and win easily but they're not a poor team. They have resilience and character and we knew they'd come back at us," New Zealand coach Wayne Smith said.



Winger Stirling Mortlock combined with flyhalf Stephen Larkham to open Australia's account with a try in the 10th minute then gave the home side a glimmer of hope when he scored again in the 20th minute after number eight Jim Williams split the All Black defence.



As the match wore on, the Australians began to find some holes in the Kiwi defence.



They pulled back to within five points when fullback Chris Latham scored from close-range after a series of short bursts then drew level at 24-24 when winger Joe Roff reached over after another period of sustained pressure just before halftime.



"We lost the game and we're not happy about that but I couldn't be prouder of the way we fought back," Wallaby coach Rod Macqueen said. "We kept our composure and almost won it."



Australia hit the lead for the first time five minutes after the re-start when Mortlock booted his first penalty but the All Blacks regained the advantage three minutes later with a runaway try to scrumhalf Justin Marshall to break a 39-minute scoring drought.



Mehrtens converted from the touchline then added his second penalty to lift his team to a seven- point lead before the Australians came back a second time to almost snatch victory at the death.



Mortlock put the Wallabies with striking distance with a penalty midway through the second half before Australian scrum half George Gregan, split the All Black defence then, from the next phase, spun the ball wide for replacement hooker Jeremy Paul to score in the 73rd minute.



But with the score at 35-34 and the Australians looking to have stolen the match, there was one more twist to come and it came in the imposing figure of Lomu.



The blockbusting winger popped up on the left flank, swooped on to a pass from former captain Taine Randell, who was sacked after New Zealand's disastrous World Cup campaign, then raced round to score the 10th try of the match, but the one that counted.



"Irrespective of what's happened in the past, this was just a great game to be a part of," Randell said.



"It was a great occasion and boy was it great to win."



Referee: Andre Watson (South Africa)



- REUTERS