By NICK STANLEY
Australia 29 All Blacks 26
John Eales' career got a fairytale ending as Australia pulled out a last-minute 29-26 victory against the All Blacks at Stadium Australia in Sydney.
With the great captain bowing out after the match, the Wallabies gave him the ultimate send-off - Toutai Kefu scoring by the posts in the second-to-last minute to grab the win and keep the Tri-Nations silverware in Australia's bulging trophy cabinet.
After dominating the scoring in the first half, the Wallabies found themselves on the back foot in the second half as New Zealand fought back from a 19-6 halftime deficit to take a 26-19 lead with 17 minutes left.
In that period they scored two fine tries, one each to Doug Howlett and Pita Alatini, but it was the Australians who dug deepest in the last passages.
They put the All Blacks under intense pressure, finally breaking their defences to secure the victory.
The All Black lineout suffered wobbles throughout the match and the loss of nine of their own throws proved costly.
Those linout woes were evident in the opening minutes with the All Blacks losing both of their first two throw-ins.
They were penalised shortly after the second and Wallaby fullback Matthew Burke, from 48m out, judged his kick prefectly.
A minute later, All Black first five-eighths Andrew Mehrtens proved his equal, evening the scores after the Wallabies were penalised for obstruction on the kickoff.
The next decision by South African referee Tappe Henning changed the course of the half.
On the periphery of a maul Michael Foley punched Norm Maxwell in the face, but it was Maxwell who was sin-binned for the push he gave Foley in return.
Henning's call was costly for the All Blacks. Burke kicked the penalty and Australia scored the half's only try while Maxwelll was off the park.
After repeated phases of Australian possession, Stephen Larkham put in a deft bomb to the right-hand corner where Chris Latham outjumped Jonah Lomu and scrambled over to score.
Burke made no mistake with the conversion to give Australia a 13-3 lead.
Before long, that lead was stretched to 13 points, Burke kicking his third penalty after Leon MacDonald knocked-on another Larkham bomb, and Tana Umaga caught the ball in an offside position.
The All Black team then sparked with a strong passage of play that finished with Troy Flavell being taken out near the corner.
The Wallabies were penalised in lineout but Mehrtens hit the posts with the kick.
He made up for it shortly after, when George Gregan was penalised for kicking ball away from back of All Blacks scrum.
Mehrtens missed another three points and Burke kept his perfect kicking record intact to stretch Australia's lead to 19-6 with a penalty – against Flavell for not releasing the ball – on the stroke of halftime.
After the break, the All Blacks came out determined to convert some of the possession they enjoyed into points.
Winger Howlett scored the first try, after some elusive Alatini footwork.
The second five-eighths took an inside pass, broke one tackle, stepped Stephen Larkham and fed the flying Howlett who raced over.
Mehrtens converted the try and New Zealand was back in the match at 19-13.
Burke missed his only penalty of the night after the All Black lineout lost another throw, but Mehrtens made sure of his opportunity on the 22m line to close the gap to three points.
Referee Henning had his yellow card out shortly after, this time sin-binning Wallaby prop Rod Moore for interfering with subsitute flanker Marty Holah on the edge of a maul.
Just as Australia made New Zealand pay when they had 14 men on the field, so too did the All Blacks, taking the lead from the Wallabies with Alatini's try.
Alatini featured twice in the move – firstly freeing Lomu to make one of the few breaks the big winger had in the match and then receiving the pass from the ever-present Howlett after Lomu barged two Wallabies out of the way to feed his fellow winger.
Alatini went over untouched and Mehrtens made no mistake with the conversion as the All Blacks hit the front for the first time.
The first-five extended the lead to seven with his fourth penalty, and the All Blacks looked to have the ascendancy.
But as they have so many times before, the Wallabies refused to be beaten and they threw everything at the All Blacks in search of the win.
A penalty to Andrew Walker, whose introduction helped spark the comeback, was followed by waves of attack as the Wallabies held possession and pinned the All Blacks in their own 22.
Despite some crucial lost lineouts and some important calls from the referee going against them, New Zealand held their line until the final minutes.
But the Australians did not panic and eventually the weight of pressure told as Kefu made one final barging run to crash over.
Subsititute Elton Flately kicked the easy conversion and the All Blacks restart did not go ten metres, ending any chance they had of winning the Tri-Nations.
The Wallabies played out the clock, kicking the ball to touch as Eales – and Australia - celebrated the fitting end to a fine rugby career.
(C Latham, T Kefu tries; M Burke con, 4 pen, E Flatley con, A Walker pen)
(D Howlett, P Alatini tries; A Mehrtens 2 con, 4 pen)