Friday 23 February 2018 / 05:15 AM


Highlights and takeaways from the final group fixtures of the Rugby League World Cup

Historic Tonga win confirms Kiwi skepticism

It’s always incredible to witness history, and even watching the events unfold live, it was clear that what was taking place was an important moment in rugby league history.

A seismic shift in international footy occurred courtesy of Tonga’s 28-22 upset of New Zealand and it will never be the same. The game was a cracker — the best of the tournament, without a doubt — Tonga able to use their powerful running in a frenetic second-half performance to come from behind, reclaim the ascendancy and steal a historic win.

The fact the it was a Russell Packer cross-field floater that was picked off for the game-swinging play is indicative of the problems that ran the Kiwis into a hole after a strong opening half — a lack of discipline, an anonymous display from their halves in key passages and a disengagement that is awfully concerning in a game of this magnitude. New Zealand’s campaign could have been considered on the line with their tougher road to the final in mind, and they failed to consolidate a convincing position and inexcusably surrendered a 14-point lead.

That isn’t to say they were outright bad — there were stretches that they were the clearly superior side, and quite a few of them — but they have trouble converting these good sets into anything substantial, whether that be points or repeat sets. The hallmark of teams with poor halves play is struggles in these areas, and whilst Shaun Johnson was particularly excellent in smothering Tonga’s halves in defence, he again failed to stand and deliver when the stage called for it.

Johnson’s not a game organiser, and we have a career’s worth of data to suggest he needs to play with a competent playmaker to utilise his entire repertoire without hurting his team. Nikorima, especially in that context, isn’t the right fit next to SJ. Te Maire Martin might offer more upside, but even his fit isn’t ideal Their forwards and backs had lapses but were mostly winning their battles, but after all the talk about the Tongan halves stepping up and taking them over the line, it was their Kiwi counterparts that failed to have a presence. It threatens to restrict their chances of making a deep run should it continue.

Johnson will be better, regardless of who’s outside of him, but if he isn’t New Zealand can fall into a hole quickly.

Tonga were as they’ve been through the first two weeks: intense, unwavering and explosive, the forward pack pressing the advantage line with ease and comfortably trading shots in the arm-wrestle. The second stint of their three key big men — Taumalolo, Fifita and Taukeiaho — was superb; a game-winning injection of energy that blew the Kiwis off the park. New Zealand didn’t have the petrol to spark a late comeback (not helped by some poor coaching decisions from Kidwell), Tonga overpowered them — and by end outplayed them — with far more enthusiasm, landing themselves on the preferred side of the bracket and with a real chance to make a run at the final.

All of a sudden, the threat of Tonga as a World Cup contender became a reality. And to say that is simply incredible as a standalone achievement.

Business as usual

Tonga have deservingly stolen the headlines, but the Kangaroos’ consistency is being overlooked. Another controlled, methodical win where they were patient moving through their process and remain locked-in, avoiding complacency whilst putting the game out of reach late — it was the ideal victory for the favourites to work through at this stage of the competition. They aren’t trying to blow the doors off every opponent, but are building the patterns that will transfer at the business end.

And it places them in the best position to win the tournament: Tonga found a way past a bigger nation with explosiveness, but Australia are perfecting a weapon much more potent — stability.

Those levels of consistency will outlast wild spurts of energy and with the sheer talent this squad possesses, simply getting their jobs done across the field will be enough to get them home. Everything just comes down to execution — a comfortable reliance when you’re depending on players of this calibre. The draw may not have gone as expected, but it still doesn’t feel as though a semi-final against New Zealand is any threat to Australia’s path to glory.

They are somehow managing to fly under the radar whilst playing about as best as could be realistically expected.

Bati and Kumuls remain untested

Fiji have to find the line where confidence doesn’t spill over to complacency: they appeared aware of the talent gap, and entered the matchup with Italy expecting a walk in the park. The Italians brought the fight early and forced Fiji to up the intensity and click into gear, but once they withstood the first wave they were home pretty comfortably. This isn’t the contest they needed to whip them into shape, rather a suggestion that maybe they belong on the same level as Samoa rather than with the likes of Tonga and NZ.

Placing the Kumuls — equally as untested after two landslide beat-downs of inferior opponents either side of a hard-fought win over Ireland — on that spectrum is just as tough. Their only ‘test’ was a close-call against the Wolfhounds that was bogged down in their poor ball control, far from the calibre of team they’ll need to overcome to make it past the quarter-finals.

Unless either side has something up their sleeve we’re not anticipating, their chances of pulling off an upset in their quarterfinal fixtures against New Zealand and England are almost non-existent. Running over the top of the minnow nations and cruising to victory doesn’t develop habits that will help them progress, and the adjustment from one-way traffic to being in a legitimate game is going to be tough to overcome.

Living on the edge

Samoan stocks have plummeted. Scotland are passionate and sneakily well-drilled, but as an overall threat they live at the minor end of the World Cup scale – especially after the withdrawal of all of their eligible NRL stars and the banishment of their captain.

Samoa should have come out and put the game away comfortably, and to not do so – held to a 14-all draw where Scotland arguably deserved to win – is a real concern. Entering a knockout match with Australia winless is less than ideal, and if Scotland was a test for them they aren’t ready for what’s coming.

Nearly blowing that game is inexcusable.

England disappoint

The breakout game has yet to come. It just hasn’t gelled for the Poms in the group stage, and whilst they’ve looked good in moments, most of the time the fluidity and sharpness of their game just hasn’t been there. France and Lebanon should have been ideal warm-ups, but instead it creates doubt about their chances against a red-hot PNG side, let alone making a run to the final as many predicted pre-tournament.

There is an upside: they’ve made it through the pool stages unscathed, and find themselves on the opposite side to both Australia and New Zealand, their draw about as desirable as you could hope for. But they’d need to improve substantially before they think about capitalising on their fortunate positioning.

Bennett has as good a shot as any of pulling it all together, but they have a lot to do before they’re ready to compete.

Stray observations

  • Shout out to Suniasi Vunivalu for wearing two different-coloured boots. Oh, and for slinging an eight-minute hat-trick.
  • Ireland have fair claim to be disappointed not to find their way to the quarter-finals, especially as a winless Samoan team progresses. The Wolfhounds were good throughout all three of their games and deserved to go out on a high.
  • Are we sure Gary Lo isn’t Aquila Uate on steroids? Would be devastating if the Kumuls cult hero is ruled out for their quarter-final, one of the most entertaining players in the tournament.
  • Sio Siua Taukeiaho leading the goal-kicking accuracy as a front-rower might be my favourite stat of the competition.

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About the author

Brayden Issa

Brayden is a Sydney-based sports management student and sports fanatic, specialising in rugby league, basketball, football and cricket. He is concerned with everything related to professional sports performance and management.

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