AUCKLAND, New Zealand - A 21-18 win over Wales in Friday's third-place playoff at Eden Park was a case of better late than never for Australia.
A week after losing a World Cup semifinal to New Zealand for the first time, the Wallabies finally ended a losing streak at Eden Park that dated back to 1986.
The All Blacks, who have a long unbeaten record at their Auckland fortress, will take an unchanged team into Sunday's final against France — a replay of the 1987 World Cup decider at the same venue.
New Zealand beat France 29-9 to claim the first title 24 years ago, and haven't added another since.
Wales scored an injury-time converted try to edge Australia 22-21 for third place in '87. This time, a stoppage time try only reduced Australia's winning margin.
"We made the most of a situation we didn't want to be in," Wallabies captain James Horwill said of a game that was brutal and passionate at times, but was sloppy and often lacked intensity.
The Australians, fielding their best backline of the tournament, started confidently and took the lead via a Berrick Barnes try in the 12th minute but had lost key playmakers Kurtley Beale (hamstring) and Quade Cooper (knee) by the 21st.
English referee Wayne Barnes, who controversially missed a forward pass which cost New Zealand dearly in a quarterfinal loss to France four years ago, didn't see a pass travel two meters forward in the movement that led to a Shane Williams try that gave Wales a brief 8-7 lead in the 49th minute.
James O'Connor landed two penalties within eight minutes to restore Australia's cushion and Barnes added a dropped goal before Adam Ashley-Cooper was denied a try by Wales winger George North, who stripped the ball from him in a ball-and-all tackle on the line.
But sustained Australian pressure was rewarded with a try to No. 8 Ben McCalman in the 76th. The Australians led by 10 until 20-odd phases of Welsh possession resulted in a stoppage time try for Leigh Halfpenny.
As in their opening loss to South Africa and in last week's 9-8 semifinal loss to France, missed goal kicks cost Wales dearly.
"I'm proud of the way we finished the game but we just came up a bit short ... it was a shame we couldn't finish it off with a win," veteran Wales prop Gethin Jenkins said. "We talked about creating history today but to come fourth is still an improvement on where we've been in the past couple of World Cups."
Graham Henry retained the same starting lineup which beat Australia in the semifinals to take on France on Sunday, hoping to erase the dreadful memories of a quarterfinal defeat to the French four years ago.
France has been hit-and-miss in this tournament, following up a scrappy pool stage performance with a mighty win over England in the quarterfinals before struggling again to hold off a 14-man Welsh team 9-8 in the semis.
"This French team, we're not sure who's going to turn up, quite frankly," Henry said. "So we've got to prepare that they're going to be the best in the world.
"They've certainly got the individuals to do that, it's just whether they can produce that as a side. All the word is that they've prepared well and they're very focused and they're enjoying the underdog tag."
The French players hit back at newspaper claims Friday they could resort to foul play in the final, with prop Nicolas Mas saying "the All Blacks are no angels, either."
A local daily newspaper carried a full page dedicated to examples of French brutality in rugby tests dating back to 1977. In his column under the headline "Beware the filth of the French," former All Blacks forward Wayne Shelford urged New Zealand to "beware French skullduggery" such as eye gouging.
"The dark days have long gone ... with the quality of the referees and the videos and things like that and the suspensions over the few years," France's defence coach David Ellis said. "Everybody thinks that the articles that come out like that are a little bit of a joke. It's just of no consequence to rugby today ... I suppose we could put together a 15 of some very unclean All Black players. What's the point?"
Fierce criticism seems to have brought the fragmented French team together in recent days, with the bickering that has at times caused issues between the players and coach Marc Lievremont appearing to finally be over. A steely resolve has enveloped the French, who are playing up to their role as New Zealand's World Cup nemesis — France has beaten New Zealand in the 1999 World Cup semifinals and in the 2007 quarterfinals.
"We're not here just to take part, we want to do something. Of course the All Blacks are favourites, of course the All Blacks win 90 per cent of their games against France," hooker William Servat said. "But there's still a chance for us."