NZ Maori hold off Ireland

The New Zealand Maori rugby team added to their list of international victories by marking their centenary year with a 31-28 victory over Ireland.

The New Zealand Maori rugby team added to their list of international victories by marking their centenary year with a 31-28 victory over Ireland yesterday. Ireland fought back from an 18-3 first-half deficit to lead 25-18 early in the second half before joining England, Australia, France and the British & Irish Lions among the Maori's international victims.

Jonathan Sexton, the fly-half, kicked 23 points for Ireland, landing his first eight kicks at goal but he missed the crucial ninth - a penalty in the 73rd minute - to cost his team a draw. Today, South Africa face Nick Mallett, their former coach, and Italy in the first Test of a two-Test series. Mallett is a former Springbok international who coached the Boks to 17 successive Test victories in 1997 and 1998, equalling a world record.

He has given the match added piquancy by including South African-born second-rower Quintin Geldenhuys in his team. Mallett's Italy is expected to use Springbok-like tactics in Witbank, with a powerful set of forwards led by Sergio Parisse, Geldenhuys and prop Martin Castrogiovanni backed up by the tactical kicking of scrum-half Tito Tebaldi and fly-half Craig Gower. "They (Italy) have a strong scrum and we expect them to keep the ball close and try to force penalties," Matfield said.

In New Zealand, Richie McCaw conceded on the eve of today's first Test against Wales that tightening up their defence had been a key area of focus ahead of the Carisbrook showdown. All Blacks conceded four tries against Ireland last week despite playing most of the match with a man advantage. "A couple of them were a bit soft and you wouldn't want them to happen too regularly," said the All Blacks captain.

Rocky Elsom, meanwhile, fears the memory of Australia's scrum being demolished by England last week will count against them in today's second Test. "There is an element of that perception that goes on and for a referee who has to make a decision on the spot, that's going to play a part in the decision," Australia's captain said. "The first few engagements will be reasonably telling. Part of being a good scrum and a good front row is being able to deal with whatever the referee serves up."

Nick Easter, the England No 8, said he is "sick and tired" of learning lessons and dwelling on the what-might-have-beens following last week's 27-17 defeat. In the NRL, Luke Lewis believes Lachlan Coote, 20, the baby-faced full-back, has the talent to challenge Billy Slater as the game's No 1 full-back in a few years following Coote's outstanding display in Penrith's 22-12 victory over Brisbane yesterday. Coote scored a spectacular aerial try just before half-time and was composed under the high ball and organising Penrith defence from the back.

Gold Coast face a taxing month without coach Scott Prince after badly missing his leadership and composure in a 25-24 victory over the error-prone Bulldogs yesterday. Prince tore his hamstring midway through the first half at Suncorp Stadium and his absence was sorely evident as the Titans gave up a seemingly unassailable 24-6 lead.

* Agencies