A ray of light at end of All Black tunnel
AUSTRALIA 18 NEW ZEALAND 18
Wallabies hold the All Blacks in 18-18 draw
Burst of speed ... Pat McCabe eludes the New Zealand defence. Photo: Getty Images
There is life in the old dog yet. For all the talk of a dead rubber, a walkover and the greatest All Blacks side of all time, the Wallabies proved they have depth beyond their first-choice starting XV and have the confidence to dominate on their coming end of year tour.
Wallabies great Geoff Shaw spoke of the ''dark room'' earlier this week, when an athlete encounters a foe so dominant they render themselves observers rather than participants in a fight.
The Wallabies were in that dark room for the first two Tests in the Bledisloe series, overawed by the attacking prowess of the world champions. But for 80 heartening minutes at fortress Suncorp last night, the Wallabies tore off the blinkers and played the All Blacks as if they beat them last week, not 12 months ago, to pull off the most unlikely of draws in front of a sellout home crowd.
It was an error-ridden performance from both sides. The All Blacks, deserted by their trademark polish in the first stanza, regathered themselves in the second half and clawed back a nine-point deficit before taking a three-point lead, one the entire stadium expected the visitors to extend over the final 20 minutes.
But the Wallabies hit back and equalised, eventually holding the All Blacks tryless for the first time since August 2004, when they lost 23-18 to the Wallabies at ANZ Stadium in Sydney. Veterans Nathan Sharpe, Keven Mealamu and Dan Carter were all in that Test too.
And while beating the All Blacks remains the one and only criterion for Wallabies success, it is a telling development that a side composed almost entirely of second-choice players mustered the aggression and self-belief to keep their vaunted opponents on the leash.
There were no tries from the Wallabies and a frustrating inability to go for the jugular when the All Blacks were down Tony Woodcock in the first 10 minutes of the second half.
The All Blacks, too, were well out of sorts. Carter's missed field goal after the final bell capped an ordinary night for the five-eighth.
Australian blindside breakaway Scott Higginbotham was mightily fortunate not to be sent off for a knee and headbutt on New Zealand captain Richie McCaw and the veteran was justifiably incensed.
But there will be little reflection on the draw in coming days. In the next two weeks, Robbie Deans must gather the last remaining fit athletes and take them into a European winter, where Tests await against France, England, Italy and Wales.
The Beale-McCabe partnership in the midfield showed glimmers of promise but the wing and halfback positions loom as major problems. Provided Nick Phipps and Brett Sheehan stay healthy, it will be possible for Australia to travel with two specialist No.9s. But Deans's preference for three halfbacks - he took Will Genia, Luke Burgess and Phipps to the World Cup - will this week drive him to ask the ARU to allow him to bring Burgess back from France.
The wing situation took a serious turn this week when Dom Shipperley announced his wrist complaint would need surgery. It is possible that first-choice wing Digby Ioane will recover enough from his knee injury to make the tour, but it is by no means a certainty.
It's a depressing exercise rattling off the rest of the injured list. David Pocock said himself making the final two Tests of the tour was his ''best-case scenario'', second-rower James Horwill is still a chance but is quickly running out of time, hooker Stephen Moore is looking likely - as is Saia Fainga'a - and Ben Alexander should be deemed fit.
James O'Connor is out, but Berrick Barnes is on track to return in time.
In many ways this will be Deans's tour. ARU chairman Michael Hawker backed the national coach two weeks ago and last night's result vindicated his faith. It was not a win but it was a crucial display of fight from the Wallabies.
A strong performance on the upcoming tour is crucial for Deans. And they need to stay out of the dark room to really see the light.