Thursday 22 March 2018 / 09:07 PM


Slick Roos lack killer blow

It was controlled, calculated and disciplined from Australia, but an ultimately nerve-wracking 14-8 defeat of New Zealand at Coventry showed the Kangaroos’ unsettling inability to put their erratic opponents away.

The match finished two tries apiece, with the green-and-golds unable to breach the Kiwis’ try-line for the last 65 minutes after Blake Ferguson and Johnathan Thurston crossed for an early 10-0 lead. Australia dominated territory and possession, but a pair of penalties was all they had to show for their second-half efforts.

As they did in Newcastle and Perth earlier this year – where last-minute tries blew out the scoreline on each occasion – the Kiwis refused to throw in the towel through desperate, scrambling defence, and this time they can within inches of stealing a draw.

Mal Meninga will be ramming home the importance of capitalising on opportunities ahead of the Kangaroos’ likely final rematch with the Kiwis in a fortnight.

Ferguson steps up

Before Josh Mansour’s devastating injury, it seemed Blake Ferguson could be the odd man out in the three-way battle for wing spots, but the dynamic Rooster responded with a man-of-the-match effort against the Kiwis.

He scored the first try with a powerful finish, set up Australia’s only other four-pointer for Thurston, and racked up a game-high 242 metres from 20 runs and two line-breaks, causing havoc for the Kiwis’ defence with every touch.

The Kangaroos’ outside-back contingent played a vital role, with Valentine Holmes (11 runs for 139 metres) strong on the other flank and Justin O’Neill (17 runs for 171 metres) – only retaining his place due to Josh Dugan’s injury – the standout centre on the night.

Big bench boppers do the job

The Australian pack scored another comprehensive win over their vaunted Kiwi counterparts, and the interchange played a key part in that dominance.

Despite ditching the clippers and looking a bit less menacing with some scalp coverage, David Klemmer was outstanding, leading the metres-gained count for the Kangaroos forwards with 141 from 11 carries in a Samson-esque display, while Shannon Boyd racked up 86 metres from eight runs.

With veteran Matt Scott playing a somewhat understated role, fellow front-row starter Aaron Woods starred with 16 hit-ups for 123 metres, while Boyd Cordner trucked the ball up 17 times for a return of 138 metres as the world champs made 376 metres more with the ball in hand than the Kiwis.

Johnson’s magic comes up just short

After his heroics of the week before, it was a distinctly quiet performance from Shaun Johnson, who was forced to make 26 tackles, rarely ran and had a mixed night with his kicking game.

But what he produced in the final five minutes was a timely reminder that there is not a more dangerous player on the planet when the scores are tight than the Warriors halfback.

Johnson’s chip, regather and no-look pass to set up Jordan Rapana’s try was out of this world, while he came within inches of potentially snatching a draw, held up over the line in the dying seconds after a trademark cross-field jaunt.

A better platform from his forwards and more support in the playmaking and kicking department could be the catalyst for a second straight Four Nations final man-of-the-match performance, with Johnson showing glimpses of his genius in the past two games.

Encouraging signs despite dumb play

The result aside, the Kiwis made up plenty of ground on the Kangaroos after the disappointing Perth performance.

Stupid penalties – most notably a brain-snap from Martin Taupau after Solomone Kata’s try had got the Kiwis back into the contest, along with two holding-down penalties on the last tackle that resulted in Thurston goals – brought the Kiwis undone. But coming so close to a result proves what New Zealand are capable of if they can come up with anything close to an 80-minute performance.

Kata’s bulldozing four-pointer emphasised that the Kiwis have to get him more ball, while Jason Taumalolo’s 174 metres from 18 runs – the most by a forward on either team – categorically put David Kidwell’s interchange snafu in Perth into the background. Taupau and Adam Blair were strong off the bench, Jordan Kahu was safe and gutsy yet again, and Jordan Rapana is rapidly finding his feet at Test level.

SKD hanging by a thread

Shaun Kenny-Dowall was unwisely given a reprieve after two of the worst back-to-back performances ever seen at Test level, and he responded with another shocker in Coventry. A dreadful dummy-half pass ruined the Kiwis’ best attacking chance of the first half, while he dropped the ball cold during the second stanza to wreck another chance, was jittery in defence and was picked off running sideways all too often.

Kidwell has a golden opportunity to try Gerard Beale or David Fusitu’a in the left centre spot against Scotland (with Dallin Watene-Zelezniak or Fusitu’a slotting into Beale’s wing position), and a solid display should see the out-of-sorts SKD watching the final from the grandstand.

Meanwhile, Greg Eastwood provided nothing as starting prop in a late switch with Adam Blair, finishing with two hit-ups and 11 tackles as the Kiwis got a paltry return from a run-on front-rower for the third straight week. Jared Waerea-Hargreaves was ordinary against Australia and England before breaking down with injury, and Kidwell would be prudent to put Adam Blair on from the start in the decider.

With the Kiwis struggling from a playmaking perspective, it will be interesting to see if Kidwell punts on Te Maire Martin at five-eighth if the Penrith youngster has a blinder on debut. It would be a ballsy call, but one that could make all the difference with Thomas Leuluai struggling to marshal the Kiwis’ left-side attack.

Why no neutrals?

Paul Simpkins had an OK game with the whistle – despite unquestionably leaning towards the Kangaroos in the ruck penalty department – but the Australian’s selection as referee leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.

In an England-hosted tournament, with a stack of refs who control Super League matches every week waiting in the wings, why should an NRL referee be in charge? It’s an embarrassing situation and a pointed reminder international rugby league is light years behind international rugby union.

England struggle past gutsy Scots

England were hoping for a for-and-against bonanza against Scotland to boost their chances of reaching the Four Nations final, but at 8-0 down after 24 minutes the home side had to turn their focus to simply winning the match.

A quick Elliot Whitehead double saw England head into halftime with a four-point lead, while they scored five tries to one in the second half to win 38-12, but it was far from convincing from Wayne Bennett’s side.

Even a king-sized upset of Australia next week is unlikely to get the host nation into the decider; England has a points differential of +25, Australia is sitting on +48 and New Zealand is on -5. The Kiwis are odds-on to overwhelm Scotland by a big margin, meaning England will likely need to thump the Kangaroos at London’s Olympic Stadium to bump NZ out of the final.

There is a scenario that could see Australia miss the decider, however. If England beats them by 12 points or more and New Zealand defeat Scotland by 42-plus, the ’Roos will be on an early plane home – but the first part of that equation is never going to happen.

As a hypothetical example, if the Kiwis beat Scotland by 34 points on Saturday morning (AEDT), England would need a win by five points or more on Sunday (AEDT) to clinch a final rematch with Australia.

Boorish Bennett turning Brits off

Rugby league’s greatest-ever coach is proving to be the code’s worst-ever ambassador in his role as England mentor, slammed for another terse post-match interview following the scratchy win over Scotland.

Commentators and ex-Super League stalwarts Jon Wells and Iestyn Harris roasted Bennett for his petulant responses to BBC reporter Tanya Arnold’s stock-standard line of questioning, again begging the question: what is Wayne’s problem?

Representative coaching carries an inherent responsibility of media accessibility and promoting the game, but Bennett – as always – is hell-bent on playing by his own rules, at rugby league’s expense.

Matty hits the highlight reels

You won’t set a better winger’s finish than this in 2016, with Scotland’s Matty Russell producing an insane try despite being hit by big England three-quarters Jermaine McGilivary and Kallum Watkins in quick succession. The windmill put-down capped a truly special effort by the 23-year-old Warrington flyer.

[YouTube – Sports Tube]

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About the author

Will Evans

CBS’s Editor-in-Chief and lead rugby league, union and cricket writer, Will is a Christchurch-based freelancer, also writing for Big League and Rugby League Review magazines, and The New Daily website. Will has written four rugby league books.

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