Junior All Blacks battle to win
June 26, 2005

The Junior All Blacks capped an excellent weekend for New Zealand rugby as they battled to an ugly 23-19 victory in the first of two matches against Australia A at an icy Canberra Stadium here today.

The conditions resembled those at Jade Stadium last night but the similarities ended there as both sides struggled to achieve any momentum in a tense, but low-quality encounter before a meagre crowd of 8750.

Far from being inspired by the All Blacks' sterling performance in Christchurch, possibly the reverse applied as the second stringers realised their chances of a call-up had diminished even further.

Despite fielding 10 recent All Blacks in the starting line-up, the Juniors were hemmed in until towards the end of an error-ridden first half when wing Caleb Ralph finished off an 80-metre break out in the 38th minute.

Ralph's try, after a neat sideline break from Sosene Anesi, finally put the visitors on the board after out-of-sorts pivot Nick Evans missed three handy penalties.

Leading 7-5 at the break, Australia A made a storming start to the second spell when halfback Matt Henjak's break from the restart proved the catalyst for the first of fullback and man of the match Drew Mitchell's double.

Otago flanker Josh Blackie rounded off a blindside move six minutes later which involved a rare touch for wing Joe Rokocoko, who was starved of opportunities on the right flank -- a marked contrast to his three-try effort in the tour opening 48-10 defeat of Queensland on Wednesday.

But Mitchell's second try via a Junior Pelesasa break gave the hosts what threatened to be a crucial nine-point buffer as the weather deteriorated.

However, Rokocoko made the most of some rare space in the 58th minute when McAlister found him with acres of space to cross untouched.

McAlister's conversion -- the first successful kick in six attempts -- narrowed the gap to 17-19 and he gave the Juniors the lead for the first time in the 65th minute with a 40m penalty.

Another penalty with seven minutes to go extended the lead, although Australia A were pressing hard for a match-winning try when the siren sounded.

Tighthead prop John Afoa was impressive in the tight exchanges and was an effective source of lineout ball where he took three balls at the end of the formation -- including one that set the Ralph try in motion.

The Junior All Blacks dominated possession and territory early but went unrewarded as Evans missed a string of penalties after Australia A were penalised for offside at the ruck by referee Matt Goddard.

The clash looked headed for a stalemate at halftime until Perth-bound No 8 Scott Fava scored a popular try in front of his Brumbies faithful.

Fava charged over between the posts after a clever banana kick by Peter Hewat was snaffled by Mitchell who wrong-footed Steve Devine and drew opposite Anesi to give Fava an unimpeded 15-metre run to the line.

Australia A lost captain and experienced Wallabies inside back Elton Flatley before kick off after the Queenslander strained his left calf muscle during the warm-ups.

He was replaced by the Waratahs Shaun Berne but is expected to be fit when the teams meet again at Aussie Stadium in Sydney on Friday night.

Junior All Blacks 23 (Caleb Ralph, Josh Blackie, Joe Rokocoko tries; Luke McAlister 2 pen con) Australia A 19 (Drew Mitchell 2, Scott Fava tries; Peter Hewat con; Julian Huxley con). Halftime 5-7.
NZPA

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