To make matters worse, Luke Keary’s debut ended after 13 minutes because of concussion, while a vital interchange was used to give fellow first-timer Damien Cook a brief spell.
“It was a tough night, they played really well and we made a lot of errors,” coach Mal Meninga said afterwards.
“We put ourselves under enormous pressure for most of the game.”
Australia somehow led at the break, despite the home side enjoying 65 per cent of possession and completing 18 of their 21 sets. Their completion by the end of the night was a remarkable 89 per cent.
Manu had a night to remember, scoring a try against Sydney Roosters teammate Latrell Mitchell and showing wonderful hands to put Jordan Rapana over late in the game.
He could have had another assist for Watene-Zelezniak before half-time, only for The Bunker to rule he had knocked on when using the ground to regather the ball.
Australia took an early lead when Valentine Holmes crossed over for the easiest of tries, his 15th in 12 Tests.
They continued to attack down the left via the Bondi mafia, and looked like putting on a cricket score as Mitchell continually found himself in plenty of space.
“I worry about those [fast] starts [from us].
“Experience tells me you have to keep on sticking to your plan and keep on getting to your kick and field position.
“When the error came around the 12-minute mark, we didn’t touch the ball again for 10 or 12 minutes.
“They had all the momentum and it was a bit of a miracle we were actually in front at half-time.
“We made about 220 tackles in that first half, which is way above the normal. I think we just ran out of gas.
“We found some energy at the end of the game chasing points, but it told through the middle part of the second half.”
But the Kiwis held on to the ball and forced a few repeat sets. Ken Maumalo thought he had scored at the end of the sixth straight set, only to plant the ball down on the touchline.
Maumalo, however, was not to be denied a second time when Marty Taupau kept the ball alive and Watene-Zelezniak fired the ball through his legs to create an overlap.
Michael Maguire’s men were prepared to throw the ball around and put on plenty of entertainment for the fans who did bother to show up. An official crowd was not handed out, but it would not have been north of 10,000.
Manu scored a try on debut, despite his good mate Mitchell’s best efforts to deny him.
And once he spilled the ball moments later, and Daly Cherry-Evans cut-out pass paved the way for Dane Gagai to score, it looked like paving the way for another Aussie win.
But the Kiwis had other ideas and scored three straight tries to Brandon Smith, Esan Marsters and Rapana.
Despite the nervous final few minutes, New Zealand will head to England for a three-Test series full of confidence, while the Roos hang around Auckland trying to stop the Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita Tongan juggernaut.
Christian covers rugby league for The Sydney Morning Herald.