It was billed as the Test no one cared about in the lead-up, but Friday’s showdown between Stephen Kearney’s ramshackle New Zealand squad and all-conquering world champs Australia ultimately proved to be the most stirring trans-Tasman encounter in several seasons. A tough and ultra-committed Kiwis side featuring five debutants revelled in their underdog status (paying an astronomical $12 for the win with some betting agencies) to storm to an 18-12 halftime lead over a somewhat disjointed and rattled Kangaroos outfit. Australia’s overwhelming class and long-standing combinations were the difference in the second half, posting three unanswered tries to eventually run out comfortable 30-18 winners. But the big story was the Kiwis’ courageous determination to douse the knockers, with a number of unheralded selections coming up trumps. Other features of the match included:
Under-fire Kiwis coach Kearney was entitled to feel more than a little smug in the aftermath. After gun prop Jared Waerea-Hargreaves was controversially left out, Roosters club-mate Sam Moa – JWH’s replacement in the starting side – was close to the best player on the field, while fellow prop Jesse Bromwich was not far behind. Both bookends scored first half tries through sheer determination, as did Melbourne backrower Tohu Harris, who was a surprise five-eighth starter but buried the firestorm surrounding his World Cup omission by crashing over for a four-pointer. Bench bolter Martin Taupau was also superb on debut in the Kiwis’ front-row rotation.
Ben Henry was outstanding starting at hooker – despite not having played the position at any level – while Siliva Havili, the veteran of three interchange games for the Warriors, excelled in the dummy-half role. One of the great Test bolters of the modern era, Havili certainly did not look out of place opposite the best of all-time, Kangaroos skipper Cameron Smith. Havili not only shapes as Isaac Luke’s long-term No.9 replacement in the Test side, but he may also convince the Warriors to reconsider their rumoured big-money play for the Souths’ rake.
Shaun Johnson played virtually a lone hand as New Zealand’s playmaker and kicker – and the strain began to show in the second half with a string of dusty kicks and questionable options. The Kiwis missed injured No.6 Kieran Foran more than any other absent player, but Johnson can take heart from his largely inspirational all-round display.
When the Kangaroos’ backline turned it on, the Kiwis had no answer – their set plays proved crucial in the five-tries-to-three result. Halves Cooper Cronk and Johnathan Thurston put aside a subpar start to their respective NRL campaigns with fine performances, while the right-side Morris twins combination regularly came up trumps for Australia.
Billy Slater had a mixed night at the back, continuing his indifferent form at club level. But there were more than enough encouraging signs for the No.1 ahead of the Origin series, despite almost certainly shaping as a player NSW will target.
Dean Whare is climbing the ranks of the code’s classiest centres. Dangerous and skilful in attack, the Penrith three-quarter’s ball-and-all effort to singlehandedly bundle Greg Inglis into touch was one of the plays of the night.
Following a groundswell of negative press and widespread predictions of a massacre, the hard-fought result has surely renewed interest in the end-of-year Four Nations tournament. A full-strength Kiwi side can certainly give it a good shake, while this record-equalling Australian outfit can further stamp themselves as one of the greatest Test combinations of all time. All appears well within the limited gamut of international Rugby League again.
City-Country provides more questions than answers
Several players produced wonderful individual performances in the 26-all draw between City Origin and Country Origin at Dubbo – more standouts than we have seen in the maligned fixture for many years – but as usual, NSW’s biggest selection questions were not given definitive answers. Country put together a more cohesive team performance and held a commanding 26-10 lead inside the final 10 minutes, but City came home with a wet sail in a finish that would have been regarded as one of the most miraculous in the code’s history if more was riding on the result. City scored two spectacular tries inside the final two minutes, before Adam Reynolds’ after-the-siren conversion snatched a remarkable draw. The main talking points to emerge in the context of the Origin series were:
Country centre Jamal Idris claimed man-of-the-match honours to further boost his bid to add to his sole appearance for the Blues in 2010. Idris appears to have matured exponentially in 2014, shedding his enigmatic and lazy tags with vastly increased involvement. But with Josh Morris and Michael Jennings already rubber-stamped as NSW’s centre pairing, Idris and Will Hopoate, who scored the last-minute equaliser for City, may have to wait a bit longer to return to the Origin arena.
The NSW No.6 shootout between Josh Reynolds and Jarrod Mullen failed to produce a clear winner. Mullen directed traffic extremely well for Country, while Reynolds was typically busy and tenacious, finishing off the try of the match during the first half by claiming a Matt Moylan chip kick on the full. Laurie Daley’s choice will come down to which type of five-eighth he wants. With direction and a poor kicking game letting the Blues down in recent series, Mullen may be the better foil for anointed halfback Mitchell Pearce, with Reynolds’ versatility and dynamism utilised off the bench.
Opposing No.7s Tyrone Roberts and Adam Reynolds were fair without putting any great pressure on Pearce’s place in the NSW team. If Pearce struggles in the series opener, a Jarrod Mullen-Josh Reynolds combination may shape as the Blues’ best chance of ending Queensland’s reign.
Daniel Tupou staked his claim for the vacant wing spot in the NSW side, scoring two spectacular tries and cementing his status as arguably the game’s best aerial winger. Other contenders Jorge Taufua and incumbent James McManus were quiet by comparison.
Fullback now shapes as NSW’s greatest area of depth, with Country’s David Mead and City’s Matt Moylan – both on debut – two of the best players afield at Dubbo. The opposing No.1s were composed, incisive, courageous and dangerous throughout.
It wasn’t quite a vintage display from deposed Test prop Andrew Fifita, but his offload to set up City’s first try and a stunning burst of pace to score himself and spark his side’s late revival confirmed the Cronulla powerhouse is a must for NSW, capable of things no other prop in the game can do.
Robbie Rochow, David Klemmer and Michael Lichaa all emerged as representative stars of the future with excellent performances in their maiden City-Country outings respectively.
Future Blues’ dominant win sullied by unsavoury incidents
NSW Under-20s retained their supremacy over their Queensland counterparts, but the emphatic 30-8 result was overshadowed by a couple of detestable actions by the young Blues which are likely to attract sanctions from the NRL. Firstly, prop Matt Lodge – who was a strong performer despite spending 10 minutes in the sin bin – had an obscene word clearly visible on his wrist taping. Then in the latter stages, a NSW player directed a homophobic slur towards Queensland lock Luke Bateman. Both overtly immature incidents, which will surely raise the ire of the clubs of the guilty players, should be dealt with harshly by the NRL – there is no room for it in our game during an era when negative headlines are all too common.
On the positive side of the ledger, Newcastle’s boom rookie winger Jake Mamo scored three tries in a man-of-the-match display, Blues’ halfback Mitchell Moses outshone high-profile Maroons’ five-eighth Anthony Milford, opposing centres Sione Mata’utia (NSW) and Brendan Elliot (Queensland) made more metres than any other player on the field, and Parramatta’s teenaged first grade sensation Pauli Pauli was a handful off the bench for the victors.
Samoa Four Nations bound
Samoa created history by qualifying for its first Four Nations tournament, earning the opportunity to take on Australia, New Zealand and England at the end of the year by downing Pacific rivals Fiji 32-16. The Test had come under an unfortunate spotlight after controversial comments made by Daily Telegraph journalist and Fox Sports identity Paul Kent, but it was a high-quality, physical encounter between two passionate line-ups. Unheralded halfback Penani Manumaleali’I – who made his NRL debut for Cronulla in Round 2 – scored three tries to collect man-of-the-match honours for Samoa, whose triumph was tarnished somewhat by the sending off of Sharks prop Sam Tagatese for a head-butt.
Will has published two books on Rugby League:
- A History of State of Origin
- A Short History of Rugby League in Australia
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