Australia pays the price for neglecting Test footy
The NRL’s arrogant disregard for international Rugby League, along with several Australian stars’ incessant complaining about their workload, has come back to bite the Kangaroos.
Badly in need of regeneration after their third straight loss to the Kiwis – a 26-12 drubbing in the Anzac Test – the Kangaroos don’t have another game until the corresponding match in 2016.
A proposed tour by the England side was scrapped, largely due to burnout fears after the Auckland Nines and the expanded World Club Challenge became part of a packed season schedule.
New Zealand deserves its current top billing – not only because of the team’s brilliant recent performances, but because of the players’ and administrators’ commitment to fostering Test football. Trouncing the Kangaroos in their own backyard (again) was poetic justice after Australia selfishly relocated the Test, which was due to be played in the Shaky Isles.
The Kiwis take on England instead at the end of the year, when the NRL’s powerbrokers and the ‘overworked’ Kangaroos can rest their weary bodies and minds – and reflect on how they surrendered the dominance Australian sides had maintained for more than four decades.
Awesome Kiwis signal end of ageing ’Roos’ era
As the post mortems for this decorated Kangaroos side emerge, the focus should turn towards a Kiwis outfit that is justifiably becoming regarded as one of the greatest the country has ever produced.
Australia had no answer for explosive Wests Tigers forward Martin Taupau; Vatuvei and wing partner Jason Nightingale, two of New Zealand’s elder statesman, were among the best players on the field; long-serving centre Shaun Kenny-Dowall turned in one of his finest Test displays; Roger Tuivasa-Sheck sizzled in his first Test appearance at fullback; Jesse Bromwich added to his burgeoning status as arguably the code’s preeminent front-rower; and reigning Golden Boot winner Shaun Johnson defied a patchy start to the season for the Warriors with another virtuoso performance, thoroughly overshadowing Thurston, the player the Kiwi No.7 regards as the world’s best player.
The ‘big brother’ tag may have to be shelved for the time being, with New Zealand now in possession of the Four Nations trophy and the elusive Bill Kelly Cup. The Kiwis now look ahead to a three-Test series in England, where they have the opportunity to snatch Australia’s official No.1 ranking.
Given that Vatuvei and Thomas Leuluai, at 29, are the oldest current team members and most of the squad are in their early-to-mid 20s – not to mention the bevy of quality players busting for an opportunity – perhaps the most daunting prospect for Australia and the rest of the Rugby League world is that coach Stephen Kearney’s Kiwis are yet to peak. The retention of their Four Nations crown the recapture of the World Cup over the next two seasons are well within New Zealand’s sights.
But it’s impossible to wrench ourselves away from the demise of the Australian side, and the steps that must be taken if the Kangaroos are to reclaim their position atop the international Rugby League pedestal.
Greg Bird, Nate Myles and Luke Lewis – tremendous Test servants in the past – were subpar and upstaged by their Kiwi counterparts. The obvious need to regroup ahead of the 2016 Four Nations and the following year’s World Cup defence suggests the likes of Matt Scott, James Tamou, Corey Parker, Sam Thaiday, Cooper Cronk, and even the great Cameron Smith, may be put out to pasture before the Kangaroos embark on another end-of-year campaign.
Sheens’ selection policy exposed
Tim Sheens’ baffling selection policy for this Test, as much as any other factor, brought the Kangaroos – and his tenure as national coach – undone. It was caught awkwardly between succession planning and sticking solid with the players that had done the job in the past – and failed on both counts.
Ignoring the claims of several young stars he blooded, and who performed creditably, during the Four Nations, Sheens named four debutants for this Test. But Trent Merrin, Will Chambers (despite scoring a try), Alex Johnston and Josh Dugan all struggled to make an impact.
Dugan was ludicrously picked on the wing, where he has never featured at NRL or representative level previously. His opposite, veteran Manu Vatuvei, scored a first-half double in a man-of-the-match performance as Dugan grappled with the nuances of defending on the flank and was decidedly unthreatening with the ball. Selecting out-of-form stalwarts Myles, Lewis and Tamou also back-fired. Meanwhile, a proven in-form strike weapon in Justin Hodges was bizarrely dumped; his game-breaking ability and confidence was sorely missed.
Sheens’ contract will almost certainly not be renewed. His tenure is set to end with a 26-4-1 record and an emphatic World Cup triumph in 2013 but, sadly, will be remembered as much for failures against the Kiwis in the 2010 Four Nations and over the past seven months.
Johnson responds like a champion
That anyone would question Shaun Johnson’s place in the Kiwi Test side is a shameful example of how fickle Rugby League fans can be, but the No.7 wizard doused the detractors with a virtuoso performance in the stunning victory over the Kangaroos. While his form to date for the Warriors has underwhelmed, he has been a victim of playing inside a disjointed, mistake-riddled backline and, seemingly, being hemmed in by an inflexible structure. Johnson picked his moments beautifully at Suncorp Stadium in his best performance since the Four Nations final.
If there’s one club that can use the representative round as a launching pad for the rest of its 2015 campaign, it’s the Warriors. Johnson, Vatuvei, Thomas Leuluai, Ben Matulino and skipper Simon Mannering were all outstanding in the Kiwis’ triumph, while Solomone Kata, Tuimoala Lolohea, Konrad Hurrell, Albert Vete, Sam Lisone and Dominique Peyroux starred in the Samoa-Tonga Test.
That’s 11 of their first grade squad. Reproduce that form, and the Warriors are on track for a trademark mid-season revival.
Former minnows make their presence felt
Australia may not be fussed on building the international game, but the Pacific double-header on the Gold Coast – following a sensational Junior Kangaroos-Junior Kiwis Test – built on the progress forged by the 2013 World Cup and Samoa’s stirring Four Nations campaign last year.
Fiji subdued Papu New Guinea 22-10 in a rugged encounter, before arch-rivals Samoa and Tonga produced an absolute belter, with Samoa sneaking home 22-20 in a seesawing classic. Sam Kasiano’s match-saving cover tackle on Jorge Taufua encapsulated the passion and spirit of the contest – and stole the headlines – but it was one of myriad magic moments during the clash.
The Islander communities in Australia have got right behind their teams in recent seasons, their supporters back home love it, and there’s a plethora of NRL talent – and the games are of a high enough quality – to keep neutrals interested. The RLIF must ride this momentum and beef up the international schedule even more, whether the Kangaroos want to be involved or not.
Suspensions give Daley the perfect excuse
NSW incumbents Josh Reynolds and Greg Bird have been sidelined after producing mind-boggling repeat offences during the representative weekend – and Blues coach Laurie Daley should use the opportunity to cut these walking liabilities loose. Aside from their dumb transgressions, Reynolds and Bird were awful for City and Australia respectively. The Blues have plenty of other fine candidates for their spots and have a far better chance of defending their crown without the duo.
Tripping is inexcusable; that Reynolds has come up with several blatant trips sums up his football intelligence. He has copped his sixth suspension in the last two years and surely can’t be risked – particularly when his general form is so ordinary. Reynolds isn’t even among the best two halves at his club; he’s barely top-10 in his state.
Bird has more upside as a player (and, ironically, is also being considered as a contender for the No.6 jumper) but his lifting tackle was phenomenally identical to tackles he has been rubbed out for FOUR times previously in recent seasons. The backrow enforcer has thrown all his eggs in one basket by challenging for a downgrade at the judiciary – and if he fails, the decision will be taken out of Daley’s hands, missing the entire series with an eight-week ban.
Reynolds and Bird are match-winners on their day, while their supporters point to their passion as an excuse – and a reason to continue picking them for big games. Les Boyd and John Hopoate were passionate, potential match-winners, too.
Nielsen’s termination highlights inconsistency
As a Warriors supporter, I have to admit Dane Nielsen’s two seasons in Auckland felt like a torturous 15-year tenure, such was his incompetence. But I felt sorry for the former Queensland Origin rep when the news broke that the Dragons had terminated his contract for an off-field incident.
Unless there is more to the story – aside from a rumoured dust-up with Ben Barba and biting a woman’s leg at a nightclub – it reeks of the Dragons using the incident as an excuse to jettison a player that doesn’t fit in to their first grade plans. Nielsen does not have a rap sheet of priors, and it would be naive to suggest the Saints would come to the same decision had it been a Dugan-, Widdop- or Frizell-quality player.
Clubs have repeatedly taken this approach – sacking a no-name, while giving a star player a second chance – in the past (the Todd Carney-Steve Irwin incident in Canberra, anyone?) and it’s time they are taken to task.
Underachiever of the week
The world champion Kangaroos, without a doubt. They were emphatically out-enthused, outmuscled and outclassed across the park in a match that may as well have finished 50-12, such was the Kiwis’ dominance. Perhaps only Johnathan Thurston, Corey Parker and Michael Jennings showed they want to wear the jersey again.
Overachiever of the week
The Junior Kiwis boasted a total of two NRL appearances in their 17-man squad, but pushed a Junior Kangaroos outfit that fielded eight first-grade experienced players in their starting line-up to the absolute limit in a cracking game. The likes of halves duo Te Maire Martin and Zach Dockar-Clay, and forwards Nelson Asofa-Solomona and Marata Niukore, indicated they will soon be matching it with Junior ’Roos guns Valentine Holmes, Tepai Moeroa and Joe Ofahengaue on the NRL stage in the near future.
My new favourite player
Utility Dominique Peyroux – a fringe first-grader at the Warriors – is a noted defensive specialist, but his scintillating individual try for Samoa ultimately proved the match-winner on Saturday night. Peyroux, a former Titan and also a Cook Islands international, always brings energy when injected off the bench, and his star turn may be a springboard to a permanent NRL berth for the backrower/centre.
Josh Dugan (Kangaroos): Picked out of position and played like it, with opposing winger Vatuvei bagging a double. His effort can’t be faulted, but Dugan’s botched try from a Thurston grubber summed up Sheens’ monumental error in naming him on the flank. A knee injury capped a torrid afternoon for the Saint.
Alex Johnston (Kangaroos): For a player with 27 tries in 26 NRL games to his credit, Rabbitohs whiz Johnston was alarmingly anonymous and ineffective. Received few opportunities, but didn’t go looking for them either and was taught a lesson in representative wing-play by veteran opponent Jason Nightingale.
Will Chambers (Kangaroos): Did well to claim a second-half try, but was otherwise disappointing. Chambers and Dugan combined like complete strangers on the Kangaroos’ right-side – on both sides of the ball – and the Storm centre was outgunned by Manly’s Peta Hiku.
Trent Merrin (Kangaroos): Did little wrong but struggled to make an impact off the bench, while interchange counterpart Martin Taupau tore the home side apart. Merrin’s debut has been a long time coming, but he was decidedly underwhelming in the green-and-gold.
…Reece Robinson: Parramatta flyer Robinson amused with his time-consuming ‘death stare’ shots at goal early in the season, but Samoa’s novice goalkicker Tim Simona trumped him for eating up the clock on the weekend. Simona took almost three minutes to take the conversion after Samoa’s last try…and finished with the unflattering figures of one from four.
…Billy Slater: It wasn’t exactly a similar incident, but it was at the same venue, against the same opponent and equally vital to the end result. Greg Inglis’ in-goal howler on halftime gave the Kiwis an unassailable lead, and irresistible momentum in the same manner as Billy Slater’s infamous in-field pass that gifted a try to Benji Marshall in the 2008 World Cup final.
Form Origin teams
Each week leading up to State of Origin selection for the series opener, we’ll update the teams that would be named if NRL form was the only criteria.
NEW SOUTH WALES
8. Dylan Napa