Australia’s retired superstars were sorely missed as the Kangaroos suffered a shock 26-24 defeat to New Zealand in Auckland.
The world champions fielded a new-look line-up on Saturday, with Cooper Cronk, Billy Slater, Cameron Smith and Johnathan Thurston having all ended their representative careers.
In addition, new skipper Greg Inglis was absent through suspension, a host of other big names were absent and Luke Keary – one of four debutants – was forced off early on after suffering a blow to the head.
The Kiwis have had to cope with high-profile retirements of their own and were beaten 36-18 by England in Michael Maguire’s first Test at the helm in June, but were richly deserved winners on this occasion as a late fightback from their opponents proved in vain.
New Zealand trailed 12-8 at the break despite dominating possession and territory in the opening period.
After Valentine Holmes had touched down and added the extras to his own try inside three minutes, Ken Maumalo and Joseph Manu crossed for the Kiwis, but Shaun Johnson missed both conversions.
Manu was then controversially ruled to have knocked on before his chip led to Dallin Watene-Zelezniak scoring and the Kangaroos hit back with a sucker-punch, Tom Trbojevic breaking clear to put Dane Gagai over for a try Holmes converted.
It was a different story after the interval as New Zealand’s pressure earned greater reward.
A second dubious call of the night, this time in favour of the hosts, saw a Brandon Smith try given despite suggestions of a double movement from the hooker and Johnson then showed great footwork to initiate a move that ended with Esan Marsters going over.
Manu’s superb offload set up Jordan Rapana for a fifth New Zealand try and, although Felise Kaufusi and James Tedesco scored in quick succession to ensure a dramatic finish, the Kangaroos suffered a rare defeat.
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