Pride in the jersey was restored at Mount Smart on Saturday when the Kiwis won their rugby league clash against Australia in a 26-24 heart-warming thriller.
It was a far cry from their dismal 2017 World Cup performance when they fell to Tonga and Fiji and failed to make the playoffs.
What made it so rewarding was the brilliance of test newcomers Joseph Manu and Brandon Smith who both scored tries with centre Manu setting up another with a magical offload to wing Jordan Rapana.
Lively hooker Smith was unlucky not to be awarded another and looks to have a bright future with the Melbourne Storm as the retired Cameron Smith’s replacement.
Blessed with speed and strength, Manu is the exciting. incisive attacking centre the Kiwis have waited too long for.
With new captain Dallin Watene-Zelezniak running hard and defending strongly at fullback with a Roger Tuivasa-Sheck-type performance, the Kiwis completed 89 per cent of their sets with accurate passing and good handling.
Leading the charge up front were rugged props Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Jesse Bromwich in a strong all-round performance from the forward pack.
Playing five-eighths outside sweet-passing halfback Kodi Nikorima, Shaun Johnson relished the extra room with some elusive runs but his kicks too often found the hands of Kangaroos rather than vacant spaces.
While Australia clearly missed the experience and class of retired stars Smith, Cooper Cronk, Jonathan Thurston and Billy Slater, they still have a huge talented pool of players to choose from.
However in former South Sydney mentor Michael Maguire, the Kiwis appear to have found a coach capable of getting them to play to their potential.
There were defensive lapses out wide, especially in the final minutes when Australia scored two converted tries, but the pluses far outweighed any shortcoming and offered hope for the future.
Having lost so many good players to Tonga last year when the cupboard looked bare during their World Cup collapse, the Kiwis response against Australia exceeded all expectations.
A pity that less than half of Mt Smart’s 25,000 capacity bothered to witness it. But you can bet your bottom dollar it will be full when Tonga tackle the Kangaroos next Saturday before their enthusiastic flag-waving fans.
Meanwhile Auckland is another team that exceeded expectations by qualifying top of the Mitre 10 Cup rugby premiership table before facing fourth-placed Wellington at home on Saturday when Tasman host defending champions Canterbury.
In comfortably beating North Harbour 45-29 in their Battle of the Bridge clash, second-five Tinoai Faiane and left wing Salesi Rayasi continued their outstanding form with two tries each.
Wellington’s record of six wins and four losses pales alongside Auckland’s 9-1 but they do have some dangerous attackers.
Meanwhile full marks to the Silver Fern netballers who upset Constellation Cup hot favourites Australia 55-44 in Hamilton on Sunday with the amazing Maria Folau slotting 40 goals from 41 attempts.
With dynamic centre Laura Langman back to captain the side after she was made unavailable last year for playing in the Australian league, the team is gelling nicely under new coach Noeline Taurua who has injected the competitive drive it had lacked.
Repeating the dose against the Diamonds tonight won’t be easy after losing the first two 57-42 and 56-47 in Brisbane and Townsville respectively but the improvement is encouraging.
– Ivan Agnew is an award-winning sports writer and author